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Oliver Naesen is hitting the brakes on his Strava account.
The Belgian star has been causing some ripples for his long-distance training rides that he was posting on social media while parts of Europe are in lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis.
After a request from his AG2R-La Mondiale team, Naesen won’t be sharing his training rides with the public. But he will keep training.
“We are not allowed to use Strava because too many people were getting jealous,” Naesen told VeloNews. “Some people are losing their minds.”
Just like everyone else in cycling, Naesen is sitting on the sidelines with pro racing suspended until at least June 1. Yet unlike other parts of Europe, which has been under the yoke of a strict quarantine for nearly a month, Belgians are allowed to exercise and ride their bikes outdoors.
According to rules in Belgium, cyclists can ride limited to cycling alone or with one partner. So instead of suffering on the indoor trainer, Naesen has been able to ride outdoors and maintain his fitness in what normally would be one of his season peaks.
“I did a ride of 365km around all the borders of the province. I thought it was fun, something to make people smile,” Naesen said of a ride on March 18. “Most people liked it, but some people were going crazy.”
Since racing stopped in its tracks last month, Naesen said he’s still been training about 20 to 25 hours a week. When VeloNews talked to him last week by telephone, he had just completed 150km. He’s also been mixing in mountain biking and core work to maintain fitness.
“We have no idea when we will be racing again,” he said. “What you don’t want to do is sit around and eat pizzas every day, and gain 5 kilos.”
Naesen’s high-profile training schedule is causing some friction, especially with a few outspoken critics on social media as well as among some of his professional peers who cannot ride during lockdown in Italy, Spain, France and Andorra.
The inconsistent quarantine conditions across Europe raise some challenging questions about what is appropriate activity during the pandemic lockdown, and reveals how professional cyclists are trying to grapple with the unprecedented race stoppage across the sport.
Rivals say riders in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, which all allow outdoor training, will have an unfair advantage if and when racing resumes. Spain, Italy and Andorra are in complete lockdown, while in France, the public is allowed to exercise within 1km of their homes. Pros in France have petitioned for an exemption to be able to train. Many are saying that racers under strict lockdown would need at least two weeks of competition before starting a grand tour to race in fair conditions if racing does click back into gear later this season.
Naesen admitted he is no fan of indoor training, and says he rides outdoors nearly year-round in Belgium regardless of the weather. On Sunday, he raced to second in the virtual Tour of Flanders behind compatriot Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team).
“I am still training with more or less the same volume,” Naesen said. “I’m just not doing those super-intense days we normally would if we’d be going to the races.”
There’s another rationale authorities in Spain and Italy cited when they ruled to keep cyclists off the road nearly a month ago. They argue that riding bikes for fitness or recreation could cause a crash or incident that might require a trip to the hospital, and thus put undue pressure on already over-stressed medical facilities. People can use bikes to ride to work, but most businesses and factories have also been shut down. Though crashes are rare, especially now with almost no traffic on the roads, health authorities argued that any unnecessary activity should be prohibited during the lockdown.
So far, Belgium has about one-tenth of the COVID-19 cases as Spain. And while stores, restaurants, schools, bars, and most businesses are closed, Belgian officials allow the public to go outside to exercise. Naesen said he and other cyclists are cautious to avoid mishaps, and are diligently following the rules handed down by authorities.
“We are stuck at home, just like everyone else,” Naesen said. “In Belgium, we can ride with one person. If we see people riding in big groups, people treat them as pariahs. There is an immediate social stigma. People here respect the rules. That keeps our heads healthy.”
Naesen also had been using his Strava account throughout the health crisis to try to inspire his fan base.
But some of his longer rides that he was posting on his Strava account, which hit 30,000 followers last week, were rubbing some the wrong way.
Last month, people across Belgium were making signs with hearts on them to hang in windows to support and show solidarity for healthcare workers. So on March 24, Naesen posted a ride on Strava, tracing a route in the shape of a heart. While the majority of comments on Naesen’s Strava account were enthusiastic, a few have asked if it was appropriate to be riding in such conditions. (“Stay the f*ck home,” read one comment. “Don’t you have a home trainer?”)
“I did it to put a smile on people’s faces, but some people said, ‘what the hell are you doing?’” he said. “When they see people posting rides on Strava or hear about people riding their bikes, some people are not capable of understanding that.”
After a request from his team, Naesen reluctantly decided to shift his Strava rides into private mode.
“I like to be open with my training, so people can see what I am doing, and I know people like to copy it,” he said. “People get angry. They’re frustrated and scared, and that gets reflected on the comments on the Strava rides. We are allowed to go out. Some people cannot understand that.”
For now, Naesen is still training. But since last week, he won’t be posting the rides on Strava.