Nacer Bouhanni: Fighting for respect in the pro peloton

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In professional cycling, for each specialty, there are tangibles and intangibles.

One can break climbing down to a mathematical formula of watts and kilograms. Time trialling is a game of aerodynamics, fine-tuning the engine, and learning how to cope with a high level of pain for a certain period of time.

And then there’s sprinting, perhaps the least understood specialty. Those in the know take into consideration factors such as maximum power as well as surface area, technical skills, and the characteristics of the final kilometres in a given finish, as well as unforeseeable and immeasurable factors such as positioning, how well the members of a lead-out train trust each other, and how well they are regarded among their rivals.

Throw in a double-edged hormone like adrenaline and you get a complex scenario that few can master.

That’s why some sprinters and lead-out riders express themselves as if they were some kind of artists. Their wisdom comes both from study, experience, and instinct.

Back in 2015, Jacopo Guarnieri (then with Katusha, now with FDJ) asserted: “In my opinion, Nacer Bouhanni is the world’s stronger sprinter.” At the time, Bouhanni was just 24.

Another renowned expert on this art, Koen de Kort, expressed himself in similar terms: “Bouhanni is a great talent on the bike. He seems not that good in getting a group together, but if he gets that right, he will become a man to beat.”

Why did these sages point their finger at that young Frenchman who had just been expelled from the FDJ team because of his clashes with Arnaud Démare?

In short, because Bouhanni possesses both the tangibles and intangibles that make a champion sprinter.

Nacer Bouhanni, 2015 E3 Harelbeke. Photo: Cor Vos.

Bouhanni, the boxer

Back when he was a child, Nacer Bouhanni had two posters hanging on the wall of his bedroom — one of Bernard Hinault, and another of Mike Tyson. He inherited this love for cycling and boxing from his father, who now works at his current team, Cofidis.

Bouhanni, born in Épinal, France, in 1990, only took on cycling at age 16. Even then, he wasn’t completely focused on the bike.

“Between age 18 and 20, I was working as a ‘gendarme’ [French policeman], although on a special regime that enabled me some extra free time for training as a high performance athlete,” he explained, sitting on the edge of a sofa in the lobby of a hotel on the seaside of Alicante. “I quit when I was offered a stagiaire gig on the FDJ team but, believe me, I liked that job. Indeed, if I hadn’t become a professional cyclist, I would be working as a cop right now.”

His rise thru the ranks at FDJ was as quick as his sprinting. He opened his professional palmarés in 2011, his maiden pro season, with a stage of the Tropicale Amissa Bongo; he then collected 27 victories over the three following years, including three stages of the Giro d’Italia and two of the Vuelta a España.

Yet his troubled, aggressive manner resulted in FDJ’s manager, Marc Madiot, to show him the exit door. Several beefs over the course of the years led to a situation in which Madiot had to choose between the volcanic Bouhanni and the peaceful Démare. He went with the latter.

Preceded by his results sheet and his evident talent, Bouhanni could cherry-pick which team to engage with amongst a wide range of proposals. Instead of choosing a WorldTour squad, he opted for a second-division outfit, Cofidis, with a decent racing schedule, a fair budget, and a pitiful track record of failed signings and invisible showings. In short, a failure of a team.

He hoped to change that.

Nacer Bouhanni was disqualified for an irregular sprint after tangling up with Michael Matthews on Stage 2 of the 2016 Paris-Nice. Photo: Cor Vos.

Bouhanni, the tactician

There is a philosophy that says that the personality of an organisation is reflected on the individuals that form it, and vice versa. This is the case with Bouhanni and Cofidis. Over the years — Bouhanni is now in his third season with the team — they’ve adjusted to each other up to a point in which they are the perfect fit.

A long-standing member of the Cofidis crew, Luis Ángel Maté, puts it this way: “Nacer gave this team a focus, the strong leadership and the clear goal it lacked in past years.”

This “leadership” goes way beyond the road.

“He is a strong, groundbreaking character, not your usual cyclist,” Maté elaborates. “As the unique person he is, he provokes both love and hate, affection and envy.”

Another Cofidis domestique, Cyril Lemoine, says, “Nacer is a very serious and thorough leader. He asks a lot from his teammates, as much as he does ask from himself. We understand his demands because he is very self-demanding as well.”

A good example of this “demanding” spirit is what happened with the four riders he brought on board to Cofidis back in 2015. Three months after the signings were made, only one of them, Geoffrey Soupe, remained by his side. The rest of them had been discarded, as were some other Cofidis riders that had also been put on his service. Bouhanni voiced his “disappointment” with them through his coach, Jacques Décrion.

Nowadays, the Cofidis machinery is well calibrated.

“We have a number of strong rouleurs to chase the breaks, and then three lead-out riders for my train — [Geoffrey] Soupe, [Christophe] Laporte, and [Jonas] Van Genechten,” Bouhanni explains with a hint of pride and confidence. “What role each one plays in the final meters is decided race by race.”

Decided… by who? “We just talk among ourselves in the bus. Me, the guys in the train, the director, we are all in the mix to decide what the tactic for the day is. It’s important for all the parts to express their opinion and have an input on the decision making.”

 

Lemoine shares a slightly different perspective. “It’s mostly Nacer who decides. He is a great tactician. He knows how to read, analyse, and break every map in order to foresee how a sprint is going to play out and assign specific tasks to every teammate. I’ve seen few guys as meticulous, insightful, and clever when it comes to understanding the dynamics of a mass sprint.”

Bouhanni himself admits to be “picky” about “every little detail that might be the difference between winning and losing.”

Another wayward sprint from Nacer Bouhanni, another relegation. Caleb Ewan was given victory at the 2016 Cyclassics Hamburg after the race jury deemed that Bouhanni had cut the Australian off. Photo: Cor Vos.

Bouhanni, the Bad Boy

The perception of Bouhanni as a master tactician doesn’t reach the public light. The eyes of the audience are blind to it, dazzled by the blaze of his character and the controversy that surrounds him. Bouhanni is a strong-worded person, unafraid of conflict. He seems to enjoy the tougher questions of our interview as much as he does rubbing shoulders during a sprint.

For example, when confronted with his aggressive conduct, adopted also by the whole Cofidis train to the point where several riders complained about them on the aftermath of the stage 1 of the 2016 Critérium du Dauphiné.

“Controversy is always there,” he says. “In sports, and in life in general, we can disturb others with our deeds. That’s all.”

This is not the only time in which we have seen members of the peloton speaking out against Bouhanni. At the 2016 Ruta del Sol, par example, Simon Geschke claimed in Twitter that Bouhanni had been pushed by a teammate over a climb in a stage he later won. We discussed this case with Nacer, too.

“These critics, this people who talk trash about me, reinforce my will of succeeding. I feel stronger after hearing these kind of critics.”

Ironically, his defiant way of answering to criticism makes him an easy target as it unwinds a phenomenon of conformity. Voices from the Cofidis team argue that everyone is somehow prone to judge Bouhanni’s performances with a frame of mind that turns every swirl into an outrageously dangerous maneuver. That’s why he is so frequently disqualified from races in which he has crossed the finish line first.

That and, of course, the fact that he often maneuvers dangerously.

The boxer Bouhanni considers himself a punching bag for some of his rivals. But he refuses being considered the “Bad Boy” of the current peloton.

“’Bad Boy’ is a label that people have decided to put on me,” he says. “But I’m not a bad boy. I’m just unfairly criticized. Few people actually know me in the cycling world. I’m not the kind of guy who talks to everyone. I’m rather shy and do my own thing. My real friends are not involved in cycling at all.”

Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) finished ahead of Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) to win Stage 1 of the 2016 Critérium du Dauphiné. Photo LB/RB/Cor Vos.

Bouhanni, the restless rider

A couple of spells in which Bouhanni couldn’t sleep well made it to the media last year.

One happened in late June, on the eve of the French National Championships, when he woke up in the middle of the night with his brother [and teammate] Rayanne to get entangled in a fight with some drunk guests of the hotel in which they were staying. That skirmish resulted in an injured hand that caused him to miss the Tour de France — a French leader, on a French team, absent from the biggest race of the year, held in France, due to a meaningless brawl with drunken strangers.

The other occasion was the nights that followed the 2016 Milan-San Remo. With 200 meters to go, after 300 kilometres of sharp racing, Bouhanni was in the perfect position to take the victory. Then the sprint unravelled and his chain slipped, condemning him to fourth position. The triumph of Démare only made his disgust deeper.

“Those days after Milan-San Remo were tough,” he recalls. “I just couldn’t turn my mind off what happened, and I struggled to sleep. I went straight away to the Volta a Catalunya and won two stages, but I think I succeeded out of mental power rather than of my physical level.”

Bouhanni has unfinished business with La Classicissima and hoped to close it this season. His build-up towards San Remo had been steady, yet without a victory, until Paris-Nice, where he couldn’t cope with the bad weather and abandoned. “Unrestful” was the headline use by L’Équipe to describe the mood of Cofidis and its star rider.

Bouhanni was forced to swap the WorldTour racing days he missed for long training rides and an appearance at the Nokere Koerse, a Belgian semi-classic he won by several bike lengths.

“I decided to launch my sprint early, as soon as we reached the pavé section of the home straight. I didn’t ask myself any questions and took off with 300 meters to go. It wasn’t until the very last meters that I looked behind to find out I had a pretty good advantage on my rivals,” he said.

The victory was good for his confidence, but a win at a 192km 1.HC in Belgium is not the same thing as at a 295km Monument. And when Peter Sagan launched the winning on the Poggio, taking Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe with him, Bouhanni could only watch it go.

“There was still Julien Simon, Geoffrey Soupe, and Christophe Laporte at my side on the Poggio,” Bouhanni said. “When the three from the podium attacked, I was sitting about tenth place. Not many people could have followed them. Everyone was full gas. There was nothing I could do. For the sprint, Soupe led me ideally, but we missed Christophe Laporte who was on the other side of the road. I took the wheel of the Trek train, and when they moved away I was forced to launch from a distance. In the last 20 meters, I had no energy, I had to sit back. I have regrets, but it was for a fourth place, not for victory.”

Bouhanni’s fight for the respect of the peloton didn’t come to a happy ending on the Via Roma. And it might not have, even if he’d won. Instead, further chapters of his compelling story will be staged there, and elsewhere, for years to come, before the eyes of the whole cycling world.

About the author

Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modeling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF

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