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Remember this name: Naesen emerging as next Belgian star

GENT, Belgium (VN) — Not many people outside of Belgium might have heard of Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) before this year’s spring classics campaign, but not anymore.

The 26-year-old from Belgium’s blustery west coast has emerged as a bright light during this year’s northern classics, with encouraging performances that included third at E3 Harelbeke and a heart-breaking crash Sunday at Ronde van Vlaanderen.

For as good as things have gone — with top-10s also at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and Dwars door Vlaanderen — nothing will take away the sting from Sunday’s late-race crash.

“I could cry at that moment!” Naesen told VeloNews at the line yesterday. “I felt great, but I do not now. I am destroyed.”

Without that crash, Naesen could very well have been riding for the win or the podium. Instead, he crossed the line 23rd at 2:32 back, a result that does not reflect his performance.

“Our day ended in disaster,” said Ag2r sport director Julien Jurdie on the team’s website. “Oliver had legs of fire. He was in position to win the Tour of Flanders, but that was all wiped out.”

Videos from fans along the upper stretch of Oude Kwaremont provide a better picture of what happened. It appears the leading Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) ever so slightly snagged his handlebar on a fan’s jacket hanging over a race barrier on the left side of the course. That pulled Sagan’s front wheel into the barrier’s support leg, which tripped up the two-time world champion. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Naesen were right on his wheel, and had nowhere to go.

Van Avermaet could untangle himself fast enough to recover and managed to take second behind winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step), but Naesen got wrapped up in a jacket and with Sagan. By the time he was back in the pedals, the race had swept past.

VeloNews was able to speak briefly with Naesen as he pedaled back to the team bus after stopping to chat with relatives past the finish line. Despite his disappointment, he was willing to entertain a few questions.

“I think we hit a jacket or a banner on the fence. The race was over, unfortunately,” said Naesen, shaking his head in disbelief. “We were in perfect position. I think we could have reached Gilbert.”

That shocking memory will likely haunt Naesen for a while, but it should also fuel his confidence. Despite the bad luck, he demonstrated, at the decisive moment of the race, that he was strong enough to go with Van Avermaet and Sagan, arguably the two best classics riders in the peloton right now.

It was a heart-breaking misfortune to what’s otherwise been a spectacular spring campaign.

“I was riding too close to Sagan, and I could not avoid him,” Naesen said on the team’s website. “I’m disappointed because I was one of the four strongest riders in the race. You have to have a bit of luck, and I just didn’t have any.”

Naesen, 26, has taken a back door into the WorldTour. He was one of those second-tier amateur and U23 riders who posted solid results, but never won a major amateur race such as a world title or one of the junior versions of the classics that would capture the attention of talent scouts. He was trying to juggle cycling and university studies at the same time, but he became frustrated and burned out, and ended up quitting both. He later found a job stocking shelves in a supermarket, but decided to go all-in with racing, and dedicated himself to cycling 100 percent. The payoff almost came Sunday.

Yet another member of the prolific “Class of 1990,” Naesen rode as a stagiaire with Lotto in 2014, and turned pro with second-tier Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise in 2015. In his rookie year, he scored two wins (Gooikse Pijl and La Poly Normande) along with a solid string of top-10s in one-day races across northern Europe.

Surprisingly, none of the big Belgian teams came calling, and he raced with IAM Cycling last season, winning the 50th Bretagne Classic-Ouest France race in his first season in the WorldTour while riding his first Tour de France, and posting solid results throughout the season.

Yet again, none of the big Belgian teams picked him up. Training partner and friend Van Avermaet wanted him at BMC Racing, but he opted for a deal with French outfit Ag2r La Mondiale where he’s racing as one of the team captains across the classics.

Down but not out, Naesen vowed to bounce back for Paris-Roubaix this weekend.

“I will do check-up with the doctors, but I feel that I am OK for Sunday,” Naesen said as he pedaled through the crowd, cheering him and patting his back. “I don’t like to quit. I will ready for Roubaix.”

With a strong kick and a big engine, Naesen will be back knocking on the door at many more races. Remember that name.

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