July 03, 2015

UTRECHT, Netherlands (AP) The Tour de France legend feeds itself on stories of pain and courage. Battered and bruised but still up for a fight, Nacer Bouhanni is ready to write another chapter of the race odyssey.

After a high speed crash last week in the finale of the French national championship left him on the tarmac with his ribs damaged, Bouhanni had only a slim chance of being on the starting line in Utrecht, where the Tour begins on Saturday with a 13.8-kilometer time trial.

In the aftermath of the accident, the up-and-coming sprinter posted a picture on Twitter of his bandaged body and wrote: ''Surely out of the Tour. Rib is cracked or broken.''

''That evening, I thought I was out of the Tour,'' said Bouhanni, who rides for Cofidis.

The hard-working Frenchman - also an amateur boxer - headed to the hospital, his morale low. There, X-rays revealed damage to his rib cartilages. But no fracture.

''That changed everything,'' said Cofidis sports director Yvon Sanquer. ''With fractured ribs, you're out for at least two weeks. Knowing his character, I knew it would be possible for him to recover. He is a true sprinter, with such a big heart.''

Bouhanni has been able to ride his bike every day this week and confirmed on Friday after a two-hour training session that he would compete with sprint kings Alexander Kristoff and Mark Cavendish for stage wins.

''I won't try to find excuses, I want to take part in the fight from the very first sprint,'' said Bouhanni, who keeps feeling the pain when taking deep breaths

''The good thing is that my condition is improving every day,'' he said, with a big plaster on his right elbow. ''And I'm mentally ready.''

Bouhanni was not responsible for the accident, which happened when former FDJ teammate Anthony Roux took him down.

Although Roux apologized for the unfortunate move, it was also a reminder of Bouhanni's tense relationship with his former employer.

Bouhanni, who will be riding his second Tour de France after crashing out of the race in 2013, was not selected for the Tour by FDJ last year and left the French outfit in acrimony during the offseason following a dispute with manager Marc Madiot. The two are still at odds and the sprinter said he was upset by Madiot's unsympathetic comments after his crash.

Before moving to Cofidis as their new team leader, Bouhanni had won stages at both the Vuelta and Giro. After struggling earlier this year, he seemed in fine form in the buildup to the Tour, with stages victories at the Criterium du Dauphine and Halle-Ingooigem at the end of June.

''If he wins a stage at the Tour, he will have claimed victories at the three Grands Tours, a feat which is not common among 24-year-old riders,'' Sanquer said.

The competition at the Tour will be much stronger though, and Bouhanni's teammates lack the experience to set him up in perfect conditions in the brutal sprint battles. Kristoff and Cavendish's teams - Katusha and Etixx-Quick-Step - are well-oiled machines, capable of providing efficient lead-out trains for their ace sprinters.

Cavendish's chances of adding to his tally of 25 career Tour wins this year have been boosted by Marcel Kittel's absence after the German did not recover in time from a long virus.

Kristoff and Cavendish have amassed victories this season but the fight for the best sprinter's green jersey should not be limited to a two-way battle, with the likes of John Degenkolb, Andre Greipel, Michael Matthews and Peter Sagan also forces to be reckoned with over the next three weeks.

''There are many of us capable of winning stages, it's good for the fans, and for the show,'' Bouhanni said.

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