France’s FDJ team looks like it’s off to a flyer in Paris-Nice with French national champion Nacer Bouhanni winning the opening stage. But it wasn’t all good news for Marc Madiot’s men.

With one-time general classification hopeful Jeremy Roy putting his head on the block to reel in the early break with 60km to the line in Nemours, it was clear that FDJ were set to play their sprinter Nacer Bouhanni’s card. And when Yohann Offredo strung the bunch out inside 10 kilometres, it was clear that Bouhanni was up for it.

When the 22-year-old Frenchman’s sprint rival Marcel Kittel found himself in the wrong part of a splitting bunch with 25 kilometres to go, it was so much the better for Bouhanni.

The fact that Omega-Pharma’s Tom Boonen was stuck back there made Bouhanni’s one less rider to think about. “I heard in my earpiece that Kittel had punctured and Boonen was in the back group too,” said Bouhanni later, “but I didn’t give it too much thought, I was trying to concentrate on my own position and race.”

But maybe he wasn’t concentrating enough because with two kilometres to the line, Bouhanni was far from well placed, being far too far back to have a chance in the sprint.

“I asked Geoffrey (Soupe) to wait on me and give me a tow back to the front,” explained Bouhanni, “and he took me up to William (Bonnet) who made a huge effort up the outside of the bunch and got me into position with about 400 metres to go. The three of us have been riding together since Qatar and Oman and today we knew where we were and what we had to do, it was almost like we didn’t need to speak!”

From around 250 metres out Bouhanni started sprinting and went past the fading (in every sense) Alessandro Petacchi of Lampre Merida and holding off another (younger) Italian, Elia Viviani of Cannondale. “People have been talking to me about Paris-Nice for a while now and there’s been a lot of media interest and a lot more pressure on me, but I knew what I was in for. All the same, it’s my first win in a WorldTour race and I’m really happy, it’s great for the team.”

Bouhanni, who is from the east of France in the Vosges region, is only in his third year as a pro, having been snapped up as a stagiere by FDJ at the end of 2010. His talent was spotted earlier than that though and, from a cycling family, he has been riding since he was six and was part of the French junior road squad in 2007 at the age of 16.

In short, Bouhanni has talent, has progressed steadily and, following a good winter and early Spring, you have to imagine that his confidence and that of his team, will take him further still. He’s down to ride the Giro d’Italia this year, his previous start in a Grand Tour – the 2012 Vuelta Espana – ended in an abandon on stage 13 after a crash the previous day.

But, while FDJ were celebrating the stage and yellow jersey, it wasn’t all good news. A puncture suffered by their man best equipped for a tilt at the general classification, Alexandre Geniez, put paid to his GC aspirations and the experienced Pierrick Fedrigo abandoned, unable to shake off the lingering effects of flu.

Geniez punctured just as BMC decided to put everyone in the gutter and cause a split which saw Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma) and Marcel Kittel (Argos Shimano) relegated to a total of 53 riders who lost time on the opening stage.

None of that really mattered to Bouhanni though. “I gave the stuffed toy lion from the podium to Geoffrey (Soupe) because I know his wife is about to give birth to their first child,” confessed Bouhanni later, the sign of a sprinter who knows how important it to keep your lead-out team on your side. It may not be the last stuffed lion of Bouhanni’s career…

Twitter: @KenBobPryde

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