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Naesen: ‘I felt like a retired cycling tourist’

Belgian classics specialist thankful to see racing on horizon; veteran teammate Vandenbergh hopes to prolong long career.

Ag2r-La Mondiale is getting its riders’ motors running again after months without racing or group training. With the team back together at a training camp in the Alps, classics specialists Oliver Naesen and Stijn Vandenbergh have come to appreciate how much they missed life away from the peloton.

“Those last months at home I no longer felt like a top athlete, despite the 600 to 700 kilometers that you train per week,” Naesen told Het Nieuwsblad on Tuesday. “I felt like a retired cycling tourist. Do a lot of kilometers, still drive reasonably fast, but daily life was not what it should be. But now with these camps you really live as a top athlete again. Everything is in the service of the race again.”

Naesen was fortunate enough to be able to train on the open roads of Belgium through the coronavirus lockdowns, while many in the peloton were left to resort to endless hours on the home trainer. The Belgian feels the disparity in training methods and approaches through the shutdown could be telling come August.

“It will be a strange year,” Naesen said. “Riders will come forward from whom we have not yet heard or have not seen the best. And vice versa: there will be good riders who may have blown their motor in recent months, because there are some who have really trained very hard. Everyone has trained hard, but some may have exaggerated a bit.”

Naesen’s first targets for the resumed season come in early August races Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo, with his ultimate goals being the Tour de France and cobbled classics in October. The 29-year-old feels that balancing form through the intense season to come will prove challenging.

“My big goal is the Tour and especially the autumn classics,” Naesen said. “Of course I also want to make a good appearance in Milan-Sanremo. I was already second, but my peak has to come later, not in early August. It’s going to be a cramped season, and I don’t want to race great in August and then relapse.”

Veteran Vandenbergh eager to ride on at heart of classics unit

Vandenbergh is eager to keep racing with Ag2r-La Mondiale. Photo: Stephane Mantey-Pool/Getty Images

Classics veteran Vandenbergh will be riding alongside Naesen through many of the year’s one-day races. Missing the early season of racing has reinforced the 36-year-old’s desire to remain in the pro ranks, despite being out of contract this winter.

“It is a bit unfortunate that I have not really been able to show myself this year, but that applies to many riders,” Vandenbergh told Het Nieuwsblad. “I was not there in the [opening classics races of the season] Omloop and Kuurne due to illness, and after that, corona struck. Although I don’t worry too much about my future, I have also decided to add another year.”

The big Belgian, featured in a VeloNews article this spring, is hoping to ride out the rest of his career with Ag2r-La Mondiale, but if he needs to move elsewhere to keep racing, he’s prepared to do it.

“Somewhere in mid-July I will meet with the team management and hopefully I can stay … I think I am still of value in the classics team,” he said. “So I think I can continue to race. Here or in another team.”