Oliver Naesen quietly thanks the bosses at BMC Racing who did not sign him in 2017. That snub changed his career’s trajectory. Now, the 27-year-old is poised for a breakout spring classics campaign.
After IAM Cycling folded at the end of 2016, he was hoping to join training buddy and friend Greg Van Avermaet at BMC. Negotiations did not pan out, and eventually he linked up with Ag2r La Mondiale. Rather than being a super lieutenant to Van Avermaet, he will line up as leader of Ag2r La Mondiale this spring, beginning with Friday’s E3 Harelbeke.
“When IAM stopped, Greg wanted me at BMC, but the management didn’t want it to happen,” Naesen said. “At the moment I was bummed, but afterward, it was the best thing for my development. If I was with Greg on the team, I would be his luxury helper. Here, I can race to win.”
With a chance to lead, the Belgian enjoyed a breakout 2017 in his first season on Ag2r, and notched four top-10s in major Belgian races, including third at E3 Harelbeke. At last year’s Flanders, he was caught in the crash involving Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan as they chased eventual winner Philippe Gilbert. His 23rd at Flanders did not reflect the legs he had that day, but his solid run in 2017 confirmed his promise in the northern classics. This year he’s hoping for more.
“It’s difficult to say I am going to win, but I should be close to the podium regularly,” he said. “Last year was already great. This year is important for me to confirm. The hopes and dreams are big. The margins are smaller when you get close to the top.”
The French outfit has quietly built up a solid block for the northern classics. Along with Naesen, there’s Belgian veteran Stijn Vandenbergh, and the French pair of Tony Gallopin and Alexis Gougeard.
Ag2r clearly believes in Naesen, and he’s under contract through 2020.
“Oliver is important for our chances in the classics,” said Ag2r boss Vincent Lavenu. “We believe is he is capable of winning the big races. Last year he was already close. We are building a strong unit for the classics with him as one of the leaders.”
As much as he’s optimistic about the upcoming battles on the cobbles, Naesen admits he’s still a step or two below the top riders. He points to Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan at the top of the classics heap right now.
“It’s clear there is a hierarchy,” Naesen said. “Last year, Greg won four out of seven, so that doesn’t leave a lot of opportunities. Then Phil [Gilbert] won Flanders and Amstel, and that leaves only one. And [Michal] Kwiatkowski won Milano-Sanremo.”
Naesen said he’s part of a second-tier group that he said also includes the likes of Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step), Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).
“So if you’re among these guys, you’re getting close,” he said. “You know Greg, Peter, or Phil will win at least one of the big races.”
Naesen, who is the same age as Sagan as part of the “Class of 1990,” believes that time is on his side. Most riders begin to shine on the punishing northern classics in their late 20s and early 30s. Someone like Sagan might be the exception, but Naesen looks more to his training buddy Van Avermaet, who knocked on the door for years before finally breaking out over the past two seasons.
“I feel like I have a margin of improvement, but I also know I am getting closer,” he said. “I train a lot with Greg, and when we do the classics recon, we ride fast on the climbs like we do in the race. He cannot drop me anymore.”
After a relatively quiet start to the 2018 season, getting sick at Ruta del Sol, Naesen lines up for all the major dates, from E3 Harelbeke on Friday, all the way through Amstel Gold Race on April 15.
If Naesen drops Van Avermaet sometime this spring, those managers who didn’t sign him when they had the chance might be kicking themselves.