France will be taking both Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare to the World Championships. On the one hand, this gives the country a serious chance to snatch the rainbow jersey. On the other, it could be a recipe for disaster. The two have never got on and will be reunited for the first time since Bouhanni left FDJ two seasons back. Their careers have been heavily entwined and the gamble made by French selectors creates a situation ripe for disaster. Nevertheless, they’ll be hoping savvy team selection allows both in-form riders a chance to crown their season.
Once upon a time, the only World Championship Bouhanni dreamt of winning was in a super-lightweight boxing division. He’s never completely stepped out of the ring, but since becoming the French national road race champion in 2012 he’s developed into one of the fastest sprinters around. Curiously, he has ended each season since 2013 with eleven victories. With winter fast approaching, Bouhanni sits on eleven victories once more to total 44 since the 2013 Tour of Oman.
This figure disguises the fact Bouhanni is yet to land that one big win – a flurry of Giro d’Italia stages remain his most notable victories. He initially struggled to make his mark on the World Tour after leaving FDJ for the lesser-ranked Cofidis in 2014. FDJ had backed Demare when the two fastmen – never the best of friends – were looking for Tour de France leadership. He departed on sour terms, with boss Marc Madiot accused of not letting him prepare for that year’s Worlds in Ponferrada.
Nearly a year younger, Demare followed Bouhanni home in the 2012 nationals. Two years later positions were reversed and Demare would don the French colours after a taking victory in a Futuroscope sprint. The two were determined to prove they were the superior and this led to regular wins for the team. Though Demare ‘won’ the initial battle, he would hit a period of struggle and his potential as a leading sprinter was questioned in a difficult 2015. This year he’s bounced back, however, and with a landmark Milan-San Remo victory proved he was not afraid of mammoth courses or the pressure of the big occasion. Behind him that day was a raging Bouhanni suffering a mechanical in the closing moments.
Both will believe they can land a result at the World Championships. Bouhanni is one of a very select group of riders who can challenge the likes of Mark Cavendish, Andre Griepel and Marcel Kittel. This is a big claim but a firing Bouhanni has the acceleration to go with that trio of leading talent. His positioning often lets him down and this can lead to him being out of the hunt well before the final 400m. On other occasions he’s simply too aggressive, knocking knees and elbows on a furious dash to the line.
Demare’s form can be even harder to predict. At times I’ve sentenced him to other pursuits, but results such as Stage 2 of this year’s Giro d’Italia (second to Kittel) or Sunday’s Paris-Tours (second to Gaviria) show his sprint potential is well and truly intact.
France’s selection and subsequent race tactics are two of the most interesting aspects of this year’s race. The riders expected to start are Cyril Lemoine, Gregory Soupe and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) plus Yoann Offredo, William Bonnet and Marc Sarreau (FDJ). It looks as though each sprinter will be given their three primary lieutenants and this suggests a near-complete divide. Who will get the drinks? Who will join the chase? What happens if either Bouhanni or Demare disappear from contention? I certainly don’t envy Adrien Petit – potentially the only rider selected from outside the two squads.
Neither leader will fear the Qatar winds or the testing race distance. Bouhanni is the more likely to deliver and his price with the bookmakers (12/1) reflects his status as one of the favourites. France will be one of many nations hoping for a straightforward bunch sprint and will attempt to swoop to the head of the peloton inside the final kilometre. Bouhanni’s Cofidis cronies have finally learnt the art of the leadout and are a polished, ruthless force in the closing stages. Demare’s got the form, but Bouhanni the superior speed. For me, he’s the one to watch.