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Naesen, Van Avermaet put aside friendship for looming classics battles

The two Belgians are neighbors and often train together, but this weekend they'll be racing against each other on the cobblestones.

Friends in training, foes in racing — Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) will swap friendship for rivalry this weekend in Belgium.

The two Belgian stars are neighbors and often train and hang out together. Van Avermaet has even tried in vain to get Naesen on his teams over the years. On Saturday, at the Belgian season opener at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the pair will be among the favorites for the year’s first major cobblestone classic.

“Greg is always good, and he will be a favorite,” Naesen told Het Nieuwsblad ahead of this weekend’s battle. “Others will be strong as well. I am ready and am eager to win a classic.”

Naesen, 28, seems poised for a big win after coming close the past few seasons, and continues his leadership role at Ag2r La Mondiale.

Van Avermaet, 33, leads a new-look crew at CCC Team with some fresh faces to carry him into the 2019 classics season.

“I think my shape is exactly where it needs to be and I was impressed with my teammates at Valencia and Oman,” Van Avermaet said. “Although this will be the first cobbled race for us, half of us train together every day in Belgium, so we are comfortable as a team.”

Though on different teams, Naesen and Van Avermaet also often train together when they’re in Belgium and both know the roads well for the upcoming cobblestone classics. Naesen can measure his progress against the more successful Van Avermaet on the training rides. When he’s staying close to Van Avermaet’s wheel, he knows he’s on the right track.

Starting this weekend, with Omloop on Saturday and running all the way through April, it’s all business for the most important races on the calendar for the pair of Belgian cycling training partners and racing rivals.

Naesen, the Belgian national champion in 2017, seems destined for a major victory. He’s been posting solid results in the major classics, and he’s been patiently building his experience and depth to handle the demands of the monuments.

Naesen will lead a solid Ag2r La Mondiale team that also includes Van Avermaet’s former teammate Silvan Dillier, second in last year’s Paris-Roubaix, classics stalwart Stijn Vandenbergh, compatriot Nico Denz, and Frenchmen Julien Duval and Alexis Gougeard.

“I had a good winter and could do everything I needed to do,” Naesen said. “We’ve been able to train and inspect the courses for Harelbeke and Flanders. For my part, I am ready.”

Van Avermaet, a few years his senior, has nothing to prove. The 2016 Olympic champion and Paris-Roubaix winner has some unsettled business with the Tour of Flanders, and is determined to win his nation’s most important race once and for all.

The integration of several new riders into CCC Team’s roster for 2019 means some adjustments from Van Avermaet’s position at the former BMC Racing team, but he remains the gravitational center of the team. Key new allies include Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Lukasz Wisniowski (Sky) and Gijs Van Hoecke (LottoNL-Jumbo). Former BMC riders Michael Schar, Fran Ventoso and Guy Van Hooydonck round out the Omloop squad.

With a stage win at the Volta a Valenciana and a solid showing at Oman, Van Avermaet’s confident he’s on the right track.

“I am feeling good ahead of Omloop, and I am excited about the start of the classics season,” Van Avermaet said. “The classics season is long and it’s important to maintain good shape right through to April, which isn’t always easy. But it would be really special to get a good result for CCC Team at the opening weekend, so this is definitely a goal.”

Van Avermaet will not race the more sprinter-friendly Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday, while Naesen will. Their rivalry continues all the way through April and beyond.