The possibility of Wout van Aert not racing the Tour of Flanders on Sunday "changes everything", Oliver Naesen has said.
The Belgian AG2R Citroën rider told Cycling Weekly that for him Van Aert "was by far the number one favourite" for the Ronde, and the fact that Jumbo-Visma have said that it is "unlikely" he will take part is huge.
"Mathieu [van der Poel] was very impressive yesterday [he won Dwars door Vlaanderen], but Wout at the other races was something else this year I found.
"He was my number one favourite, and if the favourite is out, it changes everything. Everybody moves up one spot."
While Jumbo-Visma have looked incredibly strong at the Classics this season, with Christophe Laporte and Tiesj Benoot coming in and performing ably, they are not quite on the same level as Van Aert.
"Laporte is very strong, Benoot is very strong, but without Wout they're not going to be in the top position they always are," Naesen explained. "Everybody wants to be on Wout's wheel on a climb. It's not the same with Christophe and Tiesj.
"I would appreciate being on their wheel cos I know I'd be in a good spot on the top, but they're not number one favourite at the start anymore, which they were until this morning."
Anyone getting ill or sick at the moment is cursed with "very bad timing", Naesen said. He explained: "I was riding with Johan Museeuw a week ago, and he said something that I wasn't happy to hear but he was 100% right. He said if you get sick in this period of the year, it's not going to happen for you."
Naesen has had a difficult March after starting the season so well with fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The Belgian came down with the flu that affected much of the peloton at Paris-Nice, and has found it difficult to return to the top since then.
"That destroyed me," he said. "I was for one week on my couch, dying. In this period of the year it's difficult. These races are more intense than anything else. Right now I'm on the limit, and that kinda sucks."
Rather than heading into the Ronde as one of the favourites as someone who has twice finished seventh in the race, Naesen is aware he is probably destined for a support role for his teammate Greg van Avermaet.
"If I feel miraculously great I will try and go as far as I can myself and into the final with him," he said. "But in a more realistic world, where we live unfortunately, I will do everything I can to get him in the best position. That is maybe his achilles heel, positioning on the bottom of the climbs, and that might be my strongest point."
"I will go for the full length to bring him in the best position, as economically as possible to the Flanders final," he continued.
Positioning is key in the Belgian Classics, something Naesen is a specialist in, but something that is new to another favourite for Sunday, Tadej Pogačar.
On Wednesday at Dwars Pogačar did not make the move with the front group when he needed to, and as a result was forced to chase off the back, and never returned to the front of the race.
"I said to one of your colleagues, Pogačar was not not in the front because he doesn't have good legs, he has probably the best legs in the world," he argues. "But even if you are Pogačar x2 and you are at the bottom of a decisive climb that is three metres wide, as long as he doesn't grow wings to fly over the other riders, he will not be in the first group on the top, and that's what it is.
"The rest of the bunch is also still strong. If there's a nice group on the front like we saw yesterday, they're not going to wait for him."
However, "Flanders is different", the Flandrian explained.
"You can divide the 270km course into different sections and each section is sort of a quality filter where the best go through, and the lesser gods stay behind. For somebody like Pogačar who can always move up move up move up, that's better.
"If he goes to the last climb in a twenty-man group, positioning is no longer an issue for him. He will definitely be in better shape than yesterday."
Pogačar has proved that he can attack from far already this season, with his victory at Strade Bianche coming from an almost 50km solo move.
"I can see him finishing in the front 100%, like the way [Alberto] Bettiol did it, the way [Niki] Terpstra did it a few years back. I don't know 20, 30km out, something like that. That definitely is different."
Naesen stars in the new GCN+ documentary How to Win the Tour of Flanders, out now for subscribers. In it, presenter Dan Lloyd traces the story and impact of the Tour of Flanders, with the help of past riders like Johan Museeuw, and current pros like Naesen.
The race itself, and many others, can be watched live and on-demand through GCN+.
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