Oliver Naesen has made a convincing start to the 2019 season, with his dark horse reputation starting to unravel after top five finishes at Milan-San Remo and Ghent Wevelgem before battling back from illness to finish seventh in last week’s Tour of Flanders.
The spring Classic Naesen thinks suits both him and his Ag2r La Mondiale outfit best, however, is Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.
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Naesen acknowledges his previous outings at the Hell of the North have been disappointing, with no top -10 performances in the last four years. He does expect to better his 12th place finish in 2018, however, a result he achieved despite being back with the cars all day long and not seeing the lead group once.
“I reckon I’ve got better in every respect since last year,” Naesen said. “I’m still quite young, so I’ve matured physically and begun to reach my prime. Experience has also sharpened my tactical acumen.”
The lack of climbing in Paris-Roubaix suits Ag2r, according to Naesen, making the race more conducive to team dynamics, adding that he also “shouldn’t bet the farm on a sprint finish.”
The former Belgian national road race champion says he’d rather not get ahead of himself, though, as “everything could go completely pear-shaped on Sunday” but equally that “it’s hard not to feel confident when I’m riding at this level.”
Naesen highlights two former winners, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) as the two outright favourites but admits there are a lot more riders at a similar level than in previous editions, which could make it an even more tactical race.
The nature of the cobbles means that on the day luck can play just as big a part as form, and Naesen isn’t worried if he doesn’t bring home the Monument, a victory that is currently missing from his palmarès.
“It’s not now or never. I’m still learning and getting stronger. I’m confident that I’ve still got plenty of seasons ahead of me to win races.”
The bronchitis that saw the 28-year-old on a course of antibiotics in the lead up to the Tour of Flanders isn’t bothering him anymore, and he expects to be back up to 100 per cent for Roubaix. It would appear that form and luck could be coming together for Naesen, as weather forecasts say it will be a dry day on the cobbles this Sunday, with the Belgian commenting “anyone who hopes for rain is out of his mind!”