“I’m not looking to change who I am. You have to accept who I am” In search of the real Nacer Bouhanni

French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni has had a career with its fair share of controversy. Is he cycling's bad boy or just misunderstood? We look back to 2019 when Rouleur stepped into the ring for an insight into Bouhanni's life, upbringing and roots in boxing

Nacer Bouhanni’s sprinting style has sometimes put him at the centre of controversy, and following his altercation with Jake Stewart at Cholet-Pays de la Loire a few weeks ago, he made headlines once again. 

Since the incident with Stewart, and the UCI's statement condemning his actions, Bouhanni revealed that he has been targeted with racial abuse online. He posted screenshots of the racist messages he has received on social media over the past week. “I have been putting up with this for a long time already and I’ve kept quiet, but this time I won’t let it go anymore,” he wrote. He added that he intends to file a police complaint against his abusers.

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His team, Arkea-Samsic, have released a statement explaining their support of Bouhanni writing that they “strongly deplore these acts of racism.”

The incident with Stewart is not the first that Bouhanni has been involved in, but the Frenchman argues that his reputation as a dangerous sprinter is unfair. In a communiqué, he wrote that he “just wanted to win the race, unfortunately it ended badly.” “I’m not a thug,” he said.

In 2019, Rouleur was given an insight into Bouhanni’s life, spending two days in Normandy with the much-maligned enfant terrible of bunch sprinting as he stepped into the boxing ring. Is he really the bad boy or more Mr Misunderstood?

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.

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 had been a bad couple of years for Nacer and he had steam to let off. Relations – or the lack thereof – with his Cofidis team and in particular its general manager Cédric Vasseur had not been good. He bagged a Vuelta stage win in 2018 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. 

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?”

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Following the conclusion of the training session, Nacer and Sofiane retire to Alain’s house. 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.”

Nacer has followed in the footsteps of his father, Karim Bouhanni, a roofer and construction site manager, boxed and raced as an amateur before turning his attentions to supporting his talented sons. Nacer fondly remembers weekends together spent making sandwiches, loading up the Peugeot 406 estate and clocking up round trips of up to 400 kilometres to race. 

“My father would work the whole week on the site,” Bouhanni says. “At the weekend he’d take me to a track race on the Saturday, a road race on the Sunday, and then be up at six and working on Monday morning. It was a huge sacrifice from him to ensure that I could succeed in cycling.”

Karim accompanied him into the professional ranks as a coach, mentor and confidant until Cédric Vasseur severed any official ties in 2018. Unofficially the two still work together and talk on the phone every day. Perhaps those circumstances that helped forge a strong bond between father and son have left this chip on Nacer’s shoulder.

There was no racism, he says, but he was a kid with North African roots and a working-class background – without a lot of disposable income hanging around for new bikes and the latest kit – who was trying to make his way in an overwhelmingly white, middle-class sport. Cycling has always been about the fight. 

Nacer, Sofiane and Alain return to the gym a little later the following morning, having only returned from their Parisian road trip at three in the morning. This time they are joined by French lightweight champion boxer Jonathan Outin and a TV film crew. It’s no surprise when Nacer later explains that media requests always come flooding in whenever it emerges he is going boxing. 

“I don’t want to retreat from the media because of what they’ve said – ‘Bouhanni boxer’, ‘Bouhanni bad  boy’, ‘Bouhanni whatever’,” he says. “I’m here, I accept that they’re here. I’ve accepted that you’ll be here.”

He’d rather we weren’t, is the obvious implication. Yet when the cameras are out he is adamant that we select the images that demonstrate good boxing technique, and asks us to send him a draft article to make sure we got it right. We’re not quite sure if it’s down to vanity, control-freakery or a fear of being misrepresented. Most likely it’s all three. 

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“But it’s boxing, not fighting. It’s the ‘noble art’, it’s about self-control. But sometimes it gets a bad rep, boxing,” he says. We ask if the media understand that. 

“Some do, some don’t. It’s all about making a buzz to get clicks or to sell papers. That’s too easy. I’m fine with sports, and it being about that, but if it’s Bouhanni this, Bouhanni that, Bouhanni bad, then no. You have to respect sport.”

Jonathan, Sofiane and Nacer take it in turns to contest rounds of a training bout. The intensity steps up a notch, and with Nacer landing as many blows as the others there are times where all three appear to be clinging on. It doesn’t matter that it’s just a training bout; pit Nacer against a rival and there’s clearly no stopping him. 

“He likes a challenge and he is courageous, but he needs to focus,” says Jonathan. “His power comes from his legs. He hits hard, but it’s not a sprint.”

If you’re not with Nacer Bouhanni, you’re against him. He makes rivals for himself and it brings the best out of him. The day after the “false” article appeared in AS last year, he won his Vuelta stage. Right after Vasseur’s “sportive” comment and the supposed Frankfurt bus bust-up, he came back and won four races in the space of four weeks. 

“When I fight him I don’t see a cyclist and I don’t see a boxer,” Jonathan Outin says in a breathless break between rounds. “I see a competitor.”

But being this competitor is a double-edged sword. The night before his Vuelta win Nacer was so full of rage and a sense of injustice that he only slept for three, angry hours. Consequently, the day after the win, he got dropped, got ill and pulled out of the race.

Jonathan explains that a good domestic boxer like him can expect to earn a four-figure sum per fight, depending on the opponent and the TV rights. He might be lucky to fight four times a year. Nacer, win or lose, is on an estimated €1.2m to €1.5m per year.

Alain is certainly under no illusion that any desires Nacer might have professed to become a boxer after his cycling career are nothing more than wishful thinking. But why change? For now, Nacer can dip in and out of this hard world of hard men whenever he likes, all flash kit and latest hair cut while the brake lights are out on Baby Face’s Citroen Berlingo and its bodywork is as scuffed up as he is. “Bouhanni the boxer” is no real boxer here. So who is he? 

“I’m a bit shy, I don’t make easy conversation. I’m not someone who wants to chat all the time. Maybe sometimes people think I’m arrogant because I don’t like to chat, but I’m much more comfortable when someone comes to talk to me, than if it’s me that has to go to talk to them.”

It’s easy to understand how this has led to a strained relationship with the press. France likes its athletes to be chatty and charming and on this stage, Nacer has to play a different character. 

“I’m not looking to change who I am. You have to accept who I am, and if you’re okay with that then I’m okay with you. If you’re not okay with that, then I’m not going to change who I am just so that you are okay with that. I’m too honest.”

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