10-hour work shifts before training: What it took for Oliver Naesen to turn pro at 25

'If they'd given me a contract for 10 years I would have signed it,' says the Belgian, as he re-lives his journey to becoming a cyclist for a living

“There’s this thing in Belgium where if you’re aged 22 or older and you’re not pro yet it’s not going to happen. I won my first race at 22, the smallest race you can imagine, that’s not going to cut it with getting a pro contract somewhere.”

Oliver Naesen is now one of the first names on peoples’ lips when they draw up a shortlist of winners for one-day races, but it wasn’t always that way.

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In his early twenties, while most riders were either on their way to becoming a professional or had decided on being regular people focused on careers that don’t involve cycling really quickly, Naesen was trying to do both.

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“It wasn’t realistic,” Naesen says of becoming a pro, interviewed by his Ag2r La Mondiale team-mate Larry Warbasse on the French squad’s YouTube channel. “I had never won anything in the juniors or u23, literally nothing, zero races, because I was at university but that wasn’t going all that well because when I was training I was thinking ‘I should be studying’ because as a student I was very limited.

“But then when I was studying I was like, ‘f**k, I should be training because I’m going to get my ass handed to me at the weekend if I don’t train’. So I was doing both things half and half, which is always a very bad idea.”

Naesen did this for a couple of years, but came to a decision at the end of 2012, having had to re-do all his university exams in the summer.

“I was like ‘this is not going anywhere’ and I got a job as a laundry delivery driver for two years. There were really early mornings where I’d get up at 5am and get home at 4.30pm.”

While this sounds exhausting, the Belgian says his mind was now free to completely focus on racing, with only the slight inconvenience of 11-hour shifts to workaround.

“But the thing is then [after work] I was totally done, I could go training and there was nothing on my mind keeping me from trying to go as far as I could or reaching my personal cycling goals.

“The idea I had was that I was at a crossroads, where do I go in life at the end of my university career? I don’t have a degree, so a really nice job is pretty much out of the question. And then there’s cycling ‘hmm, I’m not a winner, I’m not winning races, so…’ but on the other hand I’m not really training the way I should, so what do I do?

“I just wanted to see how far I could get in cycling. I got a coach for the first time. Every day after work if he said four hours training or five hours training, I would ride with lights on my bike. Eat, sleep, work, train, repeat, all the time. Day in, day out. And my results skyrocketed.”

The only person Naesen would regularly see, aside from his coach, was his girlfriend, who he says he’s somehow still with today. There was nothing else in his life, he even used holiday days for training camps and racing.

“I remember the Tour of Belgium with the pros, my Continental team got a wildcard for that and that was a week’s holiday for me…

“And sometimes after these races on Sunday evening, I’d often race with the pros and I’d get really good results and I’d be driving home thinking ‘oh my god tomorrow I have to wake up at 5am and these pros can sleep in, have a coffee ride or whatever and my day is just going to be way harder than theirs’. I was quite jealous at the time.”

Naesen puts his breakthrough down to a lot of luck to go along with a work ethic bordering on insanity, and he didn’t necessarily believe his graft would pay off.

“Not at all because it wasn’t realistic,” Naesen says of whether he believed he would make it. “I wasn’t the only working racing who performed well and had the level to be a decent pro.”

In 205 he signed his first professional contract with Topsport Vlaanderen – Baloise. “If they’d given me a contract for 10 years I would have signed it,” he admits.

Coming into a team featuring a number of young riders, Naesen was given leadership in many big races for the team, allowing him to show what he could do. He felt ready for it, too, saying his life experiences definitely helped him make the most of it, while a number of his still-teenage team-mates showed a lot of promise but have still not yet managed to make the most of their talent.

Next, he stepped up to the WorldTour with IAM Cycling, who again allowed him quite a free role, and when that team folded, he’d shown enough promise to catch the eye of Ag2r.

“I remember in June [2016] during the Dauphiné Vincent from Ag2r said they were looking for a rider who’s in the top 20 consistently in the one-day races, perhaps can one day do a top 10 or something, just so they can get some UCI points in one-day races because they weren’t getting many.

“That sounds like the rider I am for the moment,” was Naesen’s reaction, signing with the French squad, and having recently extended his contract to stay until 2023.

In that time, he’s managed top 20s at Paris-Roubaix, a top 10 at the Tour of Flanders and a runner-up to Julian Alaphilippe at Milan – San Remo. With a pretty much full menu of one-day races left in the rescheduled 2020 season, you wouldn’t be surprised if Oliver Naesen delivers something that isn’t laundry before the year is up.