Normally, the Étoile de Bessèges would be a smorgasbord for the sprinters. Miss out one day and there’ll be another opportunity to raise your arms the next.
This year, though, the route isn’t so well suited to them, and the crash-hit stage two finish won by Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles sprinter Timothy Dupont has been their only chance to go elbow to elbow.
Arkéa-Samsic sprinter Nacer Bouhanni is one of those fastmen who’s been left a little frustrated. Second in a punchy uphill finish on the opening day behind Christophe Laporte, then sixth behind Dupont the next day after opening his sprint too early, the Frenchman acknowledged at the start of stage four that the race hadn’t turned out quite the way he hoped, but insisted there have been upsides.
“It’s not really a stage for the sprinters today, it’s more for the puncheurs, a finish a bit like the opening stage but longer and harder. And there are plenty of good puncheurs here, so I think my chance has gone,” Bouhanni told Cyclingnews.
“There’s only been one stage that’s really suited the sprinters. The opening stage and today’s stage were really more for the puncheurs, and of course yesterday a strong group went clear in the hills. But on the positive side, because the race has been so intense, it’s been a good race for sharpening your condition.”
Overlooked by his team for Tour de France selection last year, Bouhanni says he’s not thinking about this year’s Tour, one of the most sprinter-friendly of recent years, or any other specific objective.
“My main goal this season is to start winning races,” he said. “I’ve not thought about the Tour de France yet, that’s still a long way down the road. I’m just focused on the races right ahead of me now, the Tour de la Provence being my next one,” said Bouhanni.
The Frenchman won a stage in Provence last year and there should be a couple of opportunities for him to repeat that success at next week’s event. Beyond that, his programme will take him to Paris-Nice and then Milan-San Remo, where he was well placed to contest victory in 2017 only to pull his foot out of his pedal as he opened up his sprint, finishing eighth as a result.
“It’s beautiful race and one that really suits me,” he said of San Remo. “The finale is of course extremely complicated with the climbs of the Cipressa and the Poggio.
“I think in the last few years that it’s become even more difficult to stay in contention because there are now so many puncheurs who have emerged and who look to go clear on the Poggio. That makes it more difficult for the sprinters. You have to try to hang in there, but it’s hard to do that given the pace they’re going.”