Ag2r La Mondiale’s breakthrough Classics rider Oliver Naesen is predicting an “all day” race at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday with hard riding from the very first cobbled sector over 150km from the finish.
Speaking to Cycling Weekly before the team’s Friday training ride he said: “In the other Classics this season we’ve seen the races open-up really early, before it would be 30-50km from the finish now its 80-90km.
“And this course lends itself to having to race almost all day right from the first sector. I’m going to ask the team to put me in the front from the first sector.”
The first of Roubaix’s 29 cobbled sectors comes 97km into the race and 61km from the infamous Arenberg sector, which has often provided the first major selection.
However, Naesen did add that Roubaix was not like any other Classic. “It’s not really about following attacks it’s more about holding on,” he said.
He added that the field had many major contenders, which would also make for an aggressive race. Looking at the favourites he said he expected Tom Boonen to get “100 per cent” support from the star-laden Quick-Step Floors squad.
On 2015 Roubaix winner John Degenkolb, Naesen said: “In the Tour of Flanders he was always well positioned but I could see he was suffering in moments when I wasn’t suffering. That makes me think his level is not quite there yet but on a totally flat course it could suit him better.”
He added: “There is one guy at the top of the pyramid – Sagan. He has this acceleration where he can up the revs without getting out of the saddle.”
Naesen himself has impressed in only his second year in the WorldTour. Last year his best result in the spring Classics was 13th at Roubaix but this year he reached the podium at E3 Harelbeke and bagged top ten places in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
Plus, the Belgian was in a highly select group of three with Classics stars Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet as they tried to chase down Philippe Gilbert at last week’s Tour of Flanders before a crash brought all three down.
Naesen said he has gained in confidence this spring and can now envision himself winning a Classic, maybe even a Monument, in the near future.
Watch: Paris-Roubaix 2017 essential guide
He said: “This year I was always up there [in the front] if you don’t see the front group you just think they’re machines but when you’re in the top group you look around and you’re like, ‘Oh s***, Sagan is out of breath. Van Avermaet, I can hear him breathing behind me. I’m suffering too but I’m not dying, I’m hanging on.’ It opened my eyes.”
He said if he can make a small improvement next year a win will be within reach. Already the team’s, and his, mindset has progressed from targeting top-10 places at the beginning of the spring to backing him for the win in Flanders and again Sunday at Roubaix.
Naesen said that this approach will mean sometimes he finishes well down the field but feels its better to attempt to win than try to hang onto a high place as “more often you will end up on the podium”.
He added: “I can see it [a Classics win] happening. At Flanders last week I didn’t feel worse than Sagan or Greg I think…. I was already thinking about what would happen if we caught Gilbert.”
That was until the crash that ended his race. “I don’t think I’ve earned punctures or anything on Sunday at Roubaix. I feel I used up all my bad luck last week,” he said.