Three sprints, three podiums: Nacer Bouhanni is knocking on the door

Lurking in Mark Cavendish's shadow is a man who desperately wants to win a Tour de France stage.

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With Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) back to his winning ways at the 2021 Tour de France, there hasn’t been much room left in the spotlight for other sprinters. Fair enough – Cavendish’s resurgence after several years in the sporting wilderness is one of the most remarkable comeback stories that cycling has ever offered.

But Cavendish is far from the only sprinter with a story worth telling at this year’s Tour. Lurking in the Manxman’s shadow, just a bike length or so behind, is one Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa Samsic).

The Frenchman is one of the sport’s most controversial figures, known as much for his at-times-dangerous sprinting and his off-bike transgressions as for the 69 wins on his palmares. But at this year’s Tour, Bouhanni has been turning heads for all the right reasons. In three sprint finishes so far, the 30-year-old has managed three podium finishes.

On the chaotic crash-fest that was stage 3, Bouhanni was forced to stop pedalling inside the final 200 metres as he narrowly snuck past Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), both of whom were about to hit the deck. Bouhanni surged from there to finish third, behind Alpecin-Fenix duo Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen.

“Tim Merlier had already made his effort at the moment of the fall, so there was no way of winning,” Bouhanni said later. “I died just a few centimetres away from second place.

“Even if I am happy, I can’t be satisfied with finishing third.”

Bouhanni (right) taking third on stage 3.

The very next day, as Cavendish was winning his first Tour stage in five years, Bouhanni was sprinting his way to second place. Again he was left frustrated after a sub-optimal finish.

“I knew that on the occasion of this finish in Fougères I had to take the last corner on the inside, but when I had the opening and I could make my effort it was already too late,” he said. “Cavendish had already taken a lead, but I finished strong. This is [sprinting].

“I already finished second in the intermediate sprint, but I didn’t come to the Tour de France to achieve such places. I am not satisfied with that; that is not what I came for.”

Second for Bouhanni on stage 4.

On stage 6, Bouhanni again rode to third, this time behind Cavendish and Philipsen. Again he pointed to a slight mishap in the lead-in as a possible cause for missing the result he was after.

[Jacopo Guarnieri’s] crash with two kilometres to go bothered me and I had to make an effort to get back to the front,” he said. “It’s a pity that this crash cost us this effort with two kilometres to go because before that we were really in the game.

“This is the third sprint of the Tour and three times on the podium. It’s good, but I hope to win one.”

Bouhanni (right) sprinting to third on stage 6.

Bouhanni is currently racing his fourth Tour de France and his first since 2017. Despite managing eight top-10 finishes in his three prior visits to the race, he’d never reached the podium until this week.

Should he manage to win a stage, it will be his first WorldTour victory since the 2018 Vuelta a España and his first win of any kind since September last year. A stage win at the Tour would also complete his collection of Grand Tour stage wins, adding to this three wins at both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta.

There’s also the question of the green jersey. Bouhanni has been active in intermediate sprints the past few days and currently sits third in that competition with 99 points. Ahead of him sit just Philipsen (102 points) and Cavendish (148 points).

Of course, a stage win is the big goal; a goal the keen boxer can have some confidence in achieving. He’s arguably looking the best he has in years, he’s already had his best Tour ever, and his team believes in him.

“We are very close to victory; we must continue to believe in it,” said Arkéa-Samsic general manager Emmanuel Hubert. “I would like to congratulate the whole team and Nacer who is a hard worker, to come back to this Tour at such a high level. Hats off to him, I hope that he will be able to do well.

“I feel he is strong and confident, the psychology of a sprinter plays a big role. He has the mental strength to win, but also a certain kind of serenity that will help him to get the success we all hope for.“

Bouhanni is likely to have another five chances of a stage win at what is a notably sprinter-friendly edition of the Tour.

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