Talking Tactics: Sprinter case study – Nacer Bouhanni

With four of five stages ending in sprints and the big guns absent, the Tour of Beijing provided an opportunity to examine the development of some of the up-and-coming sprinters who are hoping to challenge Messrs Kittel, Greipel, Cavendish and Sagan in the future. I’m going to focus here on the performances of FDJ’s Nacer Bouhanni, who won two stages and the points competition.

Bouhanni is still only 23 but already has a national champion’s jersey from his breakthrough 2012 season. This year he has continued to progress, with his two Beijing victories taking his haul for 2013 to 11. Undoubtedly fast, he has at times suffered from both his own inexperience and being in an FDJ team whose lead-outs are typically characterised by too much impatience and not enough firepower when competing with the likes of Argos-Shimano.

The young Frenchman’s performances in Beijing make for an interesting case study, showcasing both the good and the not-so-good.

Stage 1 (result: 8th)

FDJ had moved to the front of the peloton en masse with about 6km to go but, having burned their matches, found themselves overwhelmed after the other sprint teams bided their time. As the video below starts with 2km to go, FDJ’s train has long since dissipated and Orica-GreenEDGE are in full control of the lead-out.

You can occasionally see the dark blue jersey of Bouhanni around 20 places back in the peloton with a single teammate for company.

It’s hard work for a relatively inexperienced sprinter in that position. Everyone’s jostling to move forward in a pace line already travelling at close to 60kph, and with minimal team support there is always a lot of bumping and barging, with other riders edging into you or cutting in front.

Consequently, by the time Bouhanni is able to negotiate himself into open air for the final sprint (he appears on the far left on the screen), it’s too late and he’s too far back to make sufficient inroads as Thor Hushovd sneaks through on the other side of the road to win. Bouhanni is eighth in a tight finish.

Stage 2 (result: 1st)

By contrast, the following day FDJ kept their powder dry and responded to the race situation perfectly to launch Bouhanni to a straightforward win.

The video begins after a prolonged and tiring battle to take control of the front of the peloton involving at least eight of the other teams. Argos-Shimano are in the ascendancy initially, before the initiative is wrested from them by Orica-GreenEDGE.

Inside the final kilometre, we’re left with a GreenEDGE rider just off the front, the ideal rabbit for the greyhounds to home in on. At around 500 metres, we see the blue jerseys for the first time as a huge drive by Dominique Rollin propels Bouhanni into pole position, dropping him off just inside 200 metres and requiring him to do no more than apply the finishing touch.

It’s as perfect a lead-out as a sprinter could ask for – the equivalent of a striker being set up to tap in from a yard out.

Stage 3 (result: 1st)

Sunday’s finish came at the end of a gruelling, seven-climb stage which reduced the peloton to about 60 riders. With 2km to go on a tough uphill drag, it’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step who are setting the tempo.

Bouhanni, in the race leader’s red jersey, is sitting 15-20 places back on Elia Viviani’s wheel – you can occasionally see him popping out from behind the lime-green Cannondale jerseys.

With the uphill approach and the earlier climbs having reduced most teams down to two or three men, the finish here is less crowded than usual but also more of a free-for-all. There’s less chance of being baulked, but equally it’s critical to follow the right wheels and get your timing right.

Bouhanni nails it. As the riders wind up for the sprint, he hitches a ride on Viviani’s lead-out which moves him forward in the line at minimal energy cost to himself. He then senses the turquoise jersey of Astana’s Borut Bozic moving up on his left. He switches to his wheel just in time to benefit from a slight tow, which allows him to launch his own sprint successfully for win number two.

If his win the previous day was handed to him on a plate, this one was all down to a racer’s instinct for being in the right place at the right time, and was therefore much more impressive.

Stage 5 (result: 2nd)

A routine sprint concluded the race, with a long straight finish at the end of a city circuit which all the riders consequently had several opportunities to get the measure of ahead of the final lap.

With Argos-Shimano bossing the run-in, the under-powered FDJ train burnt its matches too quickly too early in the final kilometre, leaving Bouhanni – in the green jersey of points leader this time – to fend for himself. As the Argos train was swamped in a fast and frenetic final half-kilometre, the Frenchman nudged forward a fraction too soon and found himself ahead of Luka Mezgec, who had wisely backed off to find another wheel to follow and would have been delighted to lock onto Bouhanni’s tail. The Slovenian was able to respond to Bouhanni’s kick and come over the top of him to take his first win of the year.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but both FDJ and Bouhanni were over-eager here. A more measured acceleration that would have left Rollin to pilot his sprinter to 200-250 metres out would have greatly improved his chances. And perhaps Bouhanni would have been better served by sitting on Mezgec’s wheel rather than effectively serving as his lead-out – although that’s a more borderline decision.

So there we have it. Two wins represented a fine return by any standards, but a more patient approach by both the team and himself could easily have doubled his tally. There’s no question Bouhanni is already knocking on the door of the select group of elite sprinters – if he can build his experience and race-craft there’s every chance he can start to do so on a consistent rather than occasional basis.

Talking Tactics will continue intermittently on Wednesdays throughout the off-season.

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