The presence of France's ambassador to Qatar added a degree of formality to Thursday's relaxed presentation of the French team for the UCI Road World Championships men's road race, but with all due deference to Son Excellence M. Eric Chevallier, the diplomatic event of the night was the sight of Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Démare sitting side by side in the front row and even sharing a joke.
After all, French manager Bernard Bourreau had appeared to realise the incompatibility of Démare and Bouhanni long before Marc Madiot understood that FDJ wasn't big enough for the both of them and allowed Bouhanni leave for Cofidis at the end of 2014.
When the two young sprinters failed to dovetail their efforts at the 2010 European Championships, Bourreau – then coach of the French espoirs team – dealt with the issue by simply leaving Bouhanni at home for that year's under-23 World Championships in Melbourne, and he has beat a similar path since assuming the reigns of the elite squad in 2013.
It was Démare's turn to miss out on selection when Bouhanni led the team in Ponferrada in 2014. In Richmond last year, when the pair were both on hand, it was as part of a multi-pronged French attack, with Démare very much in the shadows.
This time around, Bourreau has taken a different tack. The pan flat Doha course lends itself to a sprint finish of some description, and with both of his fastest finishers at something close to equal form in recent weeks, it proved impossible to leave either of them out and difficult to place one above the other in the leadership hierarchy.
Bourreau has thus opted for a delicate balancing act, by including both Démare and Bouhanni, and bringing three other riders apiece from FDJ and Cofidis along. The odd man out is Adrien Petit (Direct Energie), but even he has had a foot in both camps. After leading Démare out to win gold at the under-23 Worlds in Copenhagen, he spent a year in Bouhanni's train at Cofidis.
"The trade teams best prepared for this kind of event are FDJ and Cofidis, because of how they ride in the sprints and the Classics," Bourreau explained of his decision to leave out French sprinting's third man, Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie). "So I've brought two teams together to make one single French team. We'll work to our maximum to bring back the title."
The coach even managed a dash of roguish humour as he proceeded to introduce his selection one by one to the small press corps. "And sitting alongside Arnaud is his compatriot and his… well… Nacer Bouhanni," Bourreau said, to general laughter, before adding: "We have two leaders on this French team."
A L'Équipe headline this week summed up the French conundrum neatly: "All for two…" It remains to be seen to what extent Bourreau's two musketeers will be willing to work for one another come the bell lap on Sunday, though Démare was adamant that neither rider would be forced to sacrifice himself and lead out the sprint for the other.
"We'll both do the sprint, that's clear. Nacer is capable of being world champion and I'm capable of being world champion. So of course, we'll both do the sprint," Démare told a small group of reporters on Thursday evening, though he conceded that there would have to be some degree of dialogue between the two leaders.
"We'll manage it as we go along, we'll be able to discuss things and talk about how to approach things in the finale. I'd love if there were nine French riders up there in the last five kilometres, but I don't think that will be the case, so it will be a case of adapting to the terrain."
Indeed, this, in truth, is probably the crux of Bourreau's thinking. With Tom Boonen and the Belgians eager to unleash havoc on the potentially windswept opening 150-kilometre out-and-back loop, the peloton could be split irretrievably into echelons long before the race reaches the finishing circuit. Carrying two sprinters is thus something of an insurance policy, particularly when each man is capable of carving out an opening even without a dedicated sprint train.
"There are lots of sprinters who don't have trains at all, like [André] Greipel, so he's going to have to get on the wheels of other riders. And he can become world champion like that. In cycling, everything is possible," Démare said. "But we're both capable of doing the sprint."
Asked if he would be happy if Bouhanni claimed the world title, meanwhile, Démare neatly side-stepped the question, in the manner of a presidential candidate being asked to say something he admired about his opponent. "I just hope that the best rider wins à la pédale in a race worthy of the World Championships."
When Bouhanni came and sat down with the same group of reporters soon afterwards, he echoed Démare in stressing the theme of unity, but deferred to the national coach when asked about the prospect of the two French leaders sprinting against one another with a rainbow jersey on the line.
"It's not up to me to tell you what the orders are. I can't tell you what role each person will have. It's up to Bernard Bourreau to decide things," Bouhanni said carefully. "Of course, I'm a sprinter and I'll do everything I can to win, but like I said, there'll be instructions from the team."
Bouhanni did, however, dismiss the prospect of the Cofidis and FDJ factions of the team riding as two distinct entities on Sunday. "There's just one French team and you can't divide that group in two. We'll have to be united."
For Bouhanni, Sunday's race is a chance to put a different gloss on a season that thus far has been more notable for the prizes he has missed out on than the races he has won. He was declassified by the commissaires in Hamburg, missed the Tour de France through a most unusual hand injury, and, perhaps most vexingly of all, placed fourth in Milan-San Remo after slipping his chain in the sprint on the Via Roma. Bouhanni's distress at that setback can hardly have been tempered by the fact that Démare was the winner.
"The final balance sheet for my season will be made on Sunday," Bouhanni said. "It's too early to do it now, there's still a World Championships to come."
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