Boxing is hard. It’s almost too obvious a thing to write, but the sound of a gloved fist making contact with a punchbag wakes you up like a slap to the face. The siren that goes off at alternating intervals of one minute and three minutes (to mimic the structure of a bout) is piercingly loud, although presumably it needs to be if you’ve spent those three minutes with your head in a foam helmet being hit.
The speed and the energy and the noise behind the flurry of professional punches plucks a certain chord that must be tucked deep inside the human psyche, just like standing on the side of the road and feeling the rush of the professional peloton.
Nacer Bouhanni is known as “The Boxer”. He has never fought professionally (although some rival sprinters might argue otherwise) but he has practised it, side by side with cycling, since he was six years-old. Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali were his poster boys, but in the end the sheer weight of cycling trophies in the junior and under-23 ranks pulled him away from pugilism and an apprenticeship in the police force towards a life on two wheels.
“Cyclists go skiing, cyclists play football,” he says. “But everyone always knew Bouhanni went boxing.”
Boxing is at the core of his identity and it has been for the last 22 years. The stereotypes of sprinter and boxer aren’t so far apart – confrontational, controversial, egotistical, aggressive, risk-seeking adrenaline junkies – and the physical demands aren’t much different either. Hasty comparisons are easy to make. The line between cyclist and fighter easily gets blurred. But step into the gym and see sense: sprinting isn’t boxing.
“In cycling, what happens if you slow down?” asks Alain Vastine, his boxing coach. “Nothing. In boxing, if you slow down, someone takes a slice out of you! That’s the difference. It’s like if a guy was climbing a mountain pass with an HGV driving behind him, and he knows that if he slows down, he’s going to get run over. Well, you’d ride quicker, wouldn’t you? That’s how to think about it.”
The speed, skill, force, pain and effort is all captivating. It’s a beautiful, brutal thing, with a lot more to it than meets the eye. We stand back and watch Nacer Bouhanni go boxing. His sparring partner is Sofiane Takoucht, a professional boxer and former European featherweight champion who is one of Nacer’s close friends from back home in Nancy.
It has been a bad couple of years for Nacer and he’s got steam to let off. Relations – or the lack thereof – with his Cofidis team and in particular its general manager Cédric Vasseur have not been good. He bagged a Vuelta stage win last year but it was the saviour of a season whose handful of victories came at a sprinkling of lower-ranked French races that should be the bread and butter of a sprinter’s palmarès, not the highlights.
Crucially, it was another year when he didn’t go to Milan-Sanremo or the Tour de France.
In April 2018, after Nacer abandoned the Circuit de la Sarthe, his boss even went so far as to say that his form was so lacking that he wouldn’t even enter him into a sportive. To continue the theme of him not being where he ought to be, his team believed that he would be at home in Nancy, not boxing in Normandy, when helping to arrange this interview. So far, so Bouhanni.
The preconception could fit the aloof boxer that we see in front of us.
Over the years, there have been a fair few stories about alleged misunderstandings and bad behaviour. Apparently Nacer had a falling out with Cofidis sports director Roberto Damiani on the team bus when the team didn’t wait for him after he was dropped at the Frankfurt-Eschborn one-day race in May last year.
Three months later, the Spanish newspaper AS published a story saying that he had a violent coming together with his team car at the Vuelta, and he received a fine for banging the vehicle and shouting at the man at the wheel, which Nacer said had been totally made up. Then there’s the time he missed out on the 2016 Tour after he broke his hand in a hotel scuffle with a noisy guest.
The time he alleges that a jeweller in Nancy refused to let him into the shop. The various times when arms, elbows, shoulders and more have been flung in the direction of other riders in the middle of a race. We watch him box and can’t help thinking about something he wrote on social media in the middle of the Vuelta: “Why make me the bad boy I’m not?”
Following the conclusion of the training session Nacer and Sofiane, retire to Alain’s house. Alain invites us along; the three will be driving to Paris later as Alain is scheduled to hand out prizes at a French military sporting awards ceremony, but before that there’s time for lunch.
Over the dining table Nacer is quiet and absorbed in his mobile phone, although any awkward silences are soothed by Sofiane, Alain and his wife Sylvie.
Small talk turns to bike racing, and the lingering ill effects of a concussion Nacer suffered at the Tour de Yorkshire in 2017 that he says blighted that season. Sofiane – whose family’s roots are, like Bouhanni’s, in Algeria – proudly announces that Nacer was the first rider with North African heritage to win the French national championships.
He gets out his phone and pulls up a picture of his mate leaning in to Michael Matthews at the 2016 Paris-Nice and they both laugh. Nacer crossed the line first but was relegated to third for irregular sprinting.
It’s just sport, he sighs, still frustrated by it. Of course it’s nothing like boxing, argue the two guys who have spent the morning hitting each other. And anyway, remember Eric Cantona? The ultimate bad boy of French sport. Nobody liked Eric Cantona in France, they muse, especially after he kung-fu kicked that Crystal Palace fan.
“They always make me out as this bad boy,” Nacer says. We ask why that might be.
“I don’t know.”
With a knockout punch delivered to that line of inquiry for now, talk returns to boxing. Sofiane describes it as his thermostat – it regulates his inner temperature – and Alain chimes in to agree.
“Boxing is somewhere to channel energy,” he says. “They take out all their energy on the punchbag, and then they’re chilled out. Even businessmen come to the gym after work to empty themselves out by hitting the punchbag.”
Alain says it’s a way to “changer l’esprit”, meaning to refresh one’s whole spirit, one’s mood, one’s state of mind. It’s an easy thing to understand if you ride a bike. Boxing, in its physical demands and in its community, helps people deal with whatever is giving them a tough time.
“He transcended boxing,” Alain says, spontaneously combusting with pride. “He did things that left me saying, ‘how did he do that!?’ There were no limits. The bigger the competition, the greater he got.”
Edited extract from Rouleur 19.5, out now