Oliver Naesen looking for classics ‘consistency’ after going too deep in COVID season

Ag2r-Citroën star still chasing the big win and enters 2022 classics campaign recharged after going 'full, full, full' in recent seasons.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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Belgian classics star Oliver Naesen knows that to win one of the big one-days he needs to be at the front before plotting a victory.

For the past several seasons, the 31-year-old Ag2r-Citroën star is consistently banging on the door for a breakout victory over the cobbles and bergs.

“I’d love to win everything, of course, but I hope to be consistent again,” Naesen told VeloNews. “Winning is such a big word. The cake of cycling is so big, but only one person can win.”

Things went off the rails last year, and Naesen tells VeloNews ahead of Belgium’s “opening weekend” and the northern classics that regaining his footing in the bunch in 2022 is the first step.

“Everything is good for me again,” Naesen said. “I just want to be consistently on the front again like I was in most years, except for last year, so that will be nice.”

So what happened?

During the 2020 race stoppage, Naesen was among the lucky riders based in Belgium who could take full advantage of some of the less restrictive COVID measures in the darkest days of the pandemic.

Also read: A day in COVID life with Oliver Naesen

While other riders based in different countries were under strict three-month lockdown orders, Naesen was among those who could still train and ride outdoors.

Naesen was posting monster 200km training rides on his Strava account, while his competitors were trying to stay fit by riding indoor trainers.

“I did too much last year,” Naesen said. “I was thinking this COVID year is my big chance to train a lot while a lot of other countries cannot come out and I never had COVID myself, so I just went full, full, full, and I blew my engine a bit.”

Ironically, Naesen said his approach backfired a bit, and he went too deep in training, and simply wasn’t fresh enough to counter the attacks in the heat of the moment.

Naesen is back to a more traditional approach to the classics, and is off a solid but under-the-radar performance at Ruta del Sol.

Also read: Greg Van Avermaet in race to hit classics form

Along with teammate Greg Van Avermaet, Naesen is in a race against time to hit form in time to peak for the spring classics.

“It is the best preparation for the classics, even if you don’t go home for a nice result. That’s something you have to prepare for yourself mentally, but I enjoy it,” Naesen said of the five-day Ruta del Sol. “It is so hard here.

“You get more resistance in your body, and this is what you need for the classics, with repeated efforts. At those classics, those efforts are much longer, but I feel really good.”

Naesen now faces a full classics calendar, with the hopes of getting the timing right.

Up next are Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Le Samyn before Paris-Nice.

And after that, the hits come hard and fast, with a full calendar from Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, to Tour of Flanders and the rescheduled Paris-Roubaix.

“My ambitions come a bit later than other years,” Naesen told VeloNews. “I am usually stronger at the ‘opening weekend’ and a little bit less by Roubaix. This year, ‘opening weekend’ is a bit easier than other years, because of the parcours changed a bit, and it could be reduced bunch sprints at both races.

“I hope to be going much better after Paris-Nice, so that’s why I am more relaxed in the early season, and I’m really hoping to be at my best later.”

The Belgian shrugged off being overlooked for the Belgian worlds team in what was a controversial selection that also left the likes of Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke, and Philippe Gilbert on the sidelines.

“No, it wasn’t a surprise for me,” he said. “They sent the best team at the moment, and that was OK.”

And altitude training? It seems all the big stars are working altitude camps into their preparation, and even a few classics riders are getting into the act.

Naesen said he’s too busy racing to spend three weeks perched on Spain’s Teide volcano.

“I’ve never done it before. It might work, because everyone can do it,” he said. “If every team sends five riders to altitude, that’s an entire program that they’re not racing. We’re a doing a full racing program, so that’s why I am racing and not going to a camp like that.”

For 2022, Naesen hopes everything is back to normal, a “normal” that will see him at the front of the action that’s seen him pop for top-10s at the Tour of Flanders and second at Milano-Sanremo.

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