By Jonny Long
Whilst Mark Cavendish has stolen the headlines on his Tour de France return, taking three stage wins so far, another sprinter has also made his way back to the Tour after a few years away.
Nacer Bouhanni last rode his home Grand Tour in 2017, achieving his best-ever stage finish with fourth on the Champs-Élysées.
That was until this year, when the 30-year-old has finished third, second, third and fourth in the sprint stages, with four more still to come.
Having won three stages each of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España in his career, a Tour de France stage victory would complete the set and be the pinnacle of his palmarès.
Following a barren 2019, moving to Arkéa-Samsic that winter, he took four wins in the Covid-blighted 2020 season, and has been in the top five six times this year, including at Paris-Nice.
He’s arrived at the Tour in great form and with high confidence, his team say, and while Nairo Quintana being in the polka dot jersey would be a great coup for Arkéa-Samsic, a stage win with the Colombian, Warren Barguil or Bouhanni remains the priority, and at present, Bouhanni looks most likely to deliver the goods.
“Everyone's motivated, obviously, he's finished twice in third place and once in second place. He is definitely capable of a win,” Connor Swift told Cycling Weekly.
"He just needs everything to align on the right day for him to get the win and we definitely think it's manageable. We're chasing that win.”
Bouhanni’s chances have, of course, been heightened by a number of top sprinters being forced to leave the race – Caleb Ewan, Tim Merlier and Arnaud Démare, while the likes of Sam Bennett, Dylan Groenewegen and Pascal Ackermann weren’t on the start line in Brest.
However, with Mark Cavendish back to his best the point remains the same – you still have to be the fastest man in the bike race no matter who exactly forms the competition.
“I don’t think any of us are clapping our hands that Caleb has gone home, obviously it’s one less sprint train, one less sprinter in the finish, but no one wants to see anyone to crash out of the Tour,” adds Dan McLay, who forms part of Bouhanni’s lead-out.
“The buzz is possibly a bit dampened by the fact that everyone is walking around with bandages on them but hopefully we can tick off a stage.”
Bouhanni’s strong start to the season and a good patch of training leading up to the Tour gave him confidence, says sports director Sébastien Hinault.
“He had a good spring and from that he’s been in a good mood,” he says. “We’re happy he’s already been third, second, third, he’s very close to a win.
"There are four stages left for the sprinters so four left for Nacer to win. A sprinter needs confidence and we know he’s in good form,” Hinault continues.
“In the sprint stages it’s often in their head. When you see Cavendish, he’s also the same. A good feeling with his condition but also in his head.”
As for the mood in the team bus after coming so close, initial disappointment quickly turns into renewed determination to convert these podium spots into the top step.
“Nacer wants to win so at first he is disappointed but he knows he’s close so it’s good for everyone’s head, to keep going and stay focused for the three weeks,” Hinault explains, while McLay adds it’s all about perseverance.
“It’s hard, it’s the highest level all year," the Briton says, "so many sprinters are here and he’s shown he’s got the legs so we just have to keep trying and hope the door opens. We’re in the game.”
As for Nacer the person, as opposed to the racer, Swift is on hand to detail the jokes he likes to play as well as the Frenchman’s eccentricities.
“Everyone knows he's into his boxing, he's always joking around, mimicking boxing and stuff when walking to breakfast, walking to dinner and stuff like that,” Swift says.
“He loves his Sport Stage. It's like, this powder stuff. You can have it before for breakfast, or with your lunch. It's just like some sort of carb and protein mousse thing. And he just eats this all the time. He’s a bit of a character. But he's sound.”
Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races. I'm 6'0", 26 years old, have a strong hairline and have an adequate amount of savings for someone my age. I'm very single at the minute so if you know anyone, hit me up.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab, reporting about students evacuating their bowels on nightclub dancefloors and consecrating their love on lecture hall floors. I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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