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Sagan announced last month, on his 33rd birthday, that this year would be his final on the road as he looks to focus mountain biking ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
Naesen, who is just a few months younger than the Slovakian, has spent the best part of a decade racing against Sagan. They’ve shared plenty of big moments together on the biggest stage, including the dramatic crash caused by a fan’s jacket at the 2017 Tour of Flanders.
“It’s special. He’s been an example and he was the big dog from the moment I became professional until these last years. It’s quite something. I was there for all of his world titles and it’s not a Mr Nobody who stops,” Naesen told VeloNews at the recent Tour of Oman.
“There were lots of good [moments], and some bad, and he was always a guy I looked up to. It will be a shame to see him go at such a young age, but I understand it. If you achieve everything he has achieved every year it gets harder to achieve the same level. I understand his decision, but it’s kind of a shame.”
While Sagan is embarking on his final classics campaign, there are a few unexpected riders testing out the cobbled classics for only their first or second time. Matteo Jorgenson is riding at the opening weekend this week for the second time and is eyeing up his Tour of Flanders debut, while Bauke Mollema is racing Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne for the first time.
- Peter Sagan to retire from WorldTour, focus on mountain bike Olympics
- Oliver Naesen looking for classics ‘consistency’ after going too deep in COVID season
- Cobbles are coming: Opening weekend kicks off two months of cobbles madness
Tadej Pogačar is planning a return to the cobbles in March after a standout performance in 2022 where he came close to a podium at De Ronde. The classics are Naesen’s preferred terrain, but he’s happy to welcome a few stage racing interlopers.
“It’s good and I’m happy they come. Pogi is special because he has one leg more than I do and one lung more than I do so for him, I prefer he wouldn’t come, but all the other guys are welcome,” he said.
“I wasn’t surprised [by Pogačar’s debut], not at all. In our races, the first climbs that you do are all about positioning but then afterward it starts to be about what you have left in the tank. A guy like Pogačar, he’s so much better than 99.9 percent of the rest. They’re just honest races.”
A contract year
As a Flandrien, the classics are always important for Naesen, but this year is even more important for the 32-year-old. He’s out of contract with Ag2r-Citroën after seven seasons with the team.
He’s not been in this situation for quite some time after signing regular extensions well before the deadline. This means he’s got one big chance to prove he can still do it for the French squad, or he might have to look elsewhere.
“It’s the first time I’ve never really had it. I’ve always re-signed the year before the contract year. It’s a bit special because you don’t really know what is going to happen next year and what the future is going to look like. It’s kind of important and it’s special. I’m a bit nervous about it but not in a freezing-up kind of way,” Naesen told VeloNews.
“I’m happy where I am. For a rider like me, a classics rider, these talks usually start halfway through March and they should be finished by May or June, that’s usually how it is. I have no idea what the team thinks so it’s really a waiting game.”
Naesen has increasingly seen the classics as the only place where he can get his own opportunities for success and really show his value to the team. The other races will fall into place, but the spring is his opportunity to shine.
“More and more, I realized that I have to be specialized in that sort of racing, in the one-day Belgian racing. I can’t really do all the rest, the stage races and stuff it’s only Eneco, which is also in Belgium, where I can do a good job, all the rest I have to be a helper and stuff,” he said. “In racing these days, points get ever more important, and I’ve realized that I have to go full for this one and a half months to harvest as much as I can, so to speak. I’m out of contract for next year. Every year is important but now it feels like a little bit extra important.”
Naesen has had a busy start to the season already with appearances at the GP la Marseillaise, Étoile de Bessèges, and the Tour of Oman. He’s hoping that has given him a good base for the classics opening weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, but he doesn’t want to be too good yet.
“I feel good but it’s not the most important part, this first block. Usually at Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, if you come out of that feeling good and fresh it’s the most efficient way to do a classics period, in my opinion. So, no I feel good but I’m not in top shape yet, which is what I was hoping for,” Naesen said.
“I’d really like to be consistent in the top 10 of most races again because that’s really my strength. I don’t really have this one high peak and my level is always similar and if I have a shape peak in spring it’s always going to be a block shape peak and this means I won’t be as strong as [Wout] Van Aert and [Mathieu] Van der Poel but I will have a decent level throughout the period, that’s just how my body works. It’s kind of what I can expect.”