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Naesen: ‘I live and train for ‘Holy Week’’

Belgian star speaks candidly about missing the classics, salary cuts, and his hopes of racing again in 2020.

Oliver Naesen will be racing Sunday, but hardly in the way he could have imagined. The Ag2r-La Mondiale star will be among a handful of pros competing in the virtual edition of the Tour of Flanders.

It pains the 29-year-old to be missing the northern classics. Just like every Belgian pro, he trains obsessively for the cobblestones in hopes of one day winning Ronde van Vlaanderen.

VeloNews caught up with Naesen this week as he confronts a contract year without racing, and how he’s trying to cope with missing out on cycling’s Holy Week. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: How important was Flanders to your racing calendar this year?
Oliver Naesen: It’s a huge shame to miss out on the classics. I’m 29, and I was hoping to have the best year so far. I’m still hoping that the organizers can hold them in October or September. That’s not for sure at all, and right now, it’s pretty bad to be sitting at home this weekend when we should all be racing. I don’t want to think about all the work I put in to be decent shape now.

VN: Are you worried about how it will impact your career?
ON: When you’re looking at your racing career, first of all, it’s pretty short. We only have a few years at the top, so to miss out on the entire spring is a big blow. These are the years when I am at my best. And my contract ends this year. It’s not a good time to miss out on the classics for a rider like me. It’s never a good idea to stress out about things you cannot control. It’s already behind me. After all the races started to be canceled, it’s no shock we are not racing the Ronde. Of course it is a shame. I hope we have some racing at the end of the year. That would be super-nice. That’s what keeps me going. I hope they do not cancel the Tour de France. That would be a huge blow for the whole sport. That’s the way it is. We cannot control it. We cannot change anything.

VN: How was your form coming into this period?
ON: I wasn’t like last year, when my peak shape was during last weekend of Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo. We tried to work with the trainers to delay that peak a bit, to have it this week or next week, in those 10 days between Flanders and Roubaix — the sacred week. We would have hoped to have had my Sanremo shape from last year more on that week. I could feel that I was not at my peak form when we stopped racing and I felt that I could have been even better this week. We’ll never know.

VN: What was your reaction when you heard it was canceled?
ON: We were not yet finished with Paris-Nice when E3 and Gent-Wevelgem were canceled. The quarantine was going to be in place until April 1, that was the initial plan of the Belgian government, and I could not have imaged that Flanders would be canceled. But with E3 and Gent-Wevelgem canceled, something told me already we wouldn’t be racing any classics. I was thinking maybe Amstel Gold Race or Liège, because in three weeks a lot can happen. I was telling myself that, but it was all in vain.

VN: Flanders is such an important cultural icon and social event to the region, what will it be like this Sunday for Flanders to not host the race?
ON: It’s huge. There’s no party this year. Sporza are broadcasting some old races, and everyone is voting for their favorite editions. I like those old days with Museeuw. For sure, everyone will be watching on Sunday and there will be 1 million people watching a repeat of Flanders. Last Sunday, there were 400,000 people watching a re-broadcast of an old edition of Gent-Wevelgem. Everybody who has some cycling in their veins will be in front of TV, which is pretty shit, because everyone would like to be at the race.

VN: What does Flanders mean to you as a rider? What was your first Flanders memory growing up as a kid watching it?
ON: It’s my favorite race. The roads I train on every day are the ones that are the Flanders bergs. It’s a huge deal for me and everyone else that lives in my region. It’s what I dream about. It’s what motivates me in December, when it snows and rains. Everybody is talking about Tour and Alpe d’Huez, and I like the Tour and finishing those huge climbs, but that’s not what motivates me in the winter. I live and train for ‘Holy Week,’ and all those races in Flanders and northern France.

From watching Omloop as a kid to training on Flanders’ bergs, Naesen has the cobbles in his veins. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

VN: Did you go watch it as a kid?
ON: The Omloop route went past my house when I was a kid. Flanders is on the Sunday, and it was one of those days every year you knew you would be going to watch the race — either on TV or going to stand on the side of the road. My dad and I would be on the sofa, from the morning to the finish, and watch the full six and a half hours. That’s when I started to dream of racing it some day.

VN: How optimistic are you the race will be rescheduled later this season? When would be the ideal date for you and your preparation?
ON: I hope so. It would be a surprise if we did not race again this year. The organizations really want to and the teams need to, but there are a lot of question marks. It’s not so easy to move everything from one day to another because so much goes into planning these big races. There’s still a big chance we’ll be racing again. Maybe it’s October. I really hope so. Flanders was not even canceled during World War II. The race has endured wars, and who could have guessed it would be something like a virus to cancel the race — the invisible enemy.

VN: Some teams are cutting salaries, what’s your view on that?
ON: We are still training. We are still doing our jobs. I think riders should be paid. It would be important to have some solidarity from the teams. Are those teams who are cutting the budgets giving the money back to sponsors? No one knows. There is a huge gap between the highest and lowest paid riders in the peloton. Taking away 30 percent of a salary is not so easy for some of the smaller racers who are making 2,500 euros a month. They still have to pay mortgages and pay the bills. Not everyone in cycling is loaded. For a team to decide unilaterally to cut wages is bullshit. At least in a country like Belgium, the government will pay 70 percent of the wages for the soigneurs and other workers. That still hurts, but if you’re sitting at home, it makes sense. But for the people who are still working? You cannot take away the salary. We still might do 50 or 60 race days this year. That’s still almost a full season for most riders. It seems unfair for teams to cut salaries. It’s not like everyone is sitting at home and on holiday. Some of the guys are in their best years, and they’re going to maybe lose this season.

VN: Do the riders have a strong voice in these types of situations?
ON: We have the CPA [rider’s union] and they’re trying to have some assurances from the teams. We’d like it that for the teams who cut salaries that they are obligated to give a new contract to those riders automatically for the next year. It’s easy to reduce a salary and then you can say f*ck off. Cycling is a cutthroat business. And if teams do not keep their riders, should they be obligated to pay out those salaries? It’s not our fault we are not racing. And teams have a bank guarantee. There will be riders today who will have a hard time paying their bills. I would not be happy to see my salary reduced. It’s a shit situation for everyone. Many of the pros only make good salaries for three or four years of your career. You have the first years when you don’t make a lot, and then have a few years coming down off that. So do we have to take a pay cut when we don’t have any assurances from the teams what they are doing?

Naesen rode at Paris-Nice this year before the race was canceled with one stage to go. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

VN: We heard some of the French teams are considering temporary unemployment for their riders; is that affecting your team?
ON: We received an e-mail saying that’s not true. For our team, all contracted employees, from the riders, to the staff, the management and doctors, they will be receiving their salaries as agreed. That’s how it should be. For the teams cutting their budgets, what will happen to the salaries that are not paid to the riders? Do they give it back to the sponsors? Or what? That is the question I have. If teams are cutting budgets, they need to be transparent about how and why. Luckily, we are not affected. Some of these cuts might be management problems. If teams are not capable of providing salaries as they are agreed to perhaps they are just poorly managed.

VN: Is CPA providing an effective voice in this crisis?
ON: They do the best they can. It’s nice that we have someone representing the riders. One of the problems in cycling is that there are too many voices. I was one of the rider reps at Paris-Nice. Every day at the meetings, every team would have their own opinion about whether we race or we stop. We cannot have one voice, because everyone has a right to do what they want. It’s complicated to try to get everyone to speak as one.

VN: You raced at Paris-Nice as the crisis was starting to unfold, how was it during the race? Did you feel safe to race in those conditions?
ON: We felt very protected. The organizers did a good job at keeping everyone safe. We had no contact with anyone outside of our team. It was a bit odd to be separated from the fans. It was also strange to race, because people were getting confined in Italy, and governments were taking measures and events were getting canceled. That put pressure on us. There isn’t one single event in France that was allowed with more than 100 people, and we were still racing. You could see people saying things about it on social media. Everyone is suddenly an expert. But we felt safe and protected during the race.