Oliver Naesen terms cycling an “ungrateful” sport. The Flemish word ondankbaar translates, perhaps more faithfully, as ‘thankless’ but Naesen’s chosen terminology, with its connotations of a callous lack of care, seems more apt.
At the time of our interview, Naesen sits in a hotel lobby the day after Dwars door Vlaanderen, the entire left side of his body “totally open” and his 2022 Tour of Flanders in jeopardy. He eventually made it to his home Monument, his left leg showing more dressings than skin, and finished in the main bunch just over a minute down on Mathieu van der Poel.
“It’s part of the sport,” Naesen says, pragmatically. “It’s been a while for me, two years that I haven't crashed. But the streak is done now. I sent messages to friends that have broken collarbones. Standard procedure after a classic, unfortunately. You need some drama in order to have glory. Unfortunately, I had the drama.”
Not to start at the Tour of Flanders would have been “very, very painful” for Naesen. “It's not just me, it's the entire team. [On] December 30th we were testing the new Pirelli tires on the cobbles to see what was best for Flanders and what would be best for Roubaix. If all this is for nothing? That would be sad.”
Talk of Paris-Roubaix is a welcome distraction. “Roubaix is a bit easier,” Naesen says. ‘It's more of a lottery. In Flanders, honestly, I think two or three riders can win. But with Roubaix there might be somebody from the break on the podium; the breakaway might even win it which never happens in any other classic race. There’s a huge luck factor. It's easier to make somebody lose, in Roubaix, because it's all flat, than in Flanders.
‘There were years where I saw myself as a legitimate podium candidate in Flanders, and it would have felt like more of an honest race. Whereas Roubaix, often when you have really good legs you go home with frustrations.’
The prospect of a spring Roubaix, the first for three years, appeals to Naesen. “It's nicer. I prefer the dust over the mud like last year. I know it looked great on TV but it was so slippery, so hard. The dusty ones, you're navigating blind. But the cobbles are easier. The pace is higher, I enjoy it a bit more.”
Naesen, who stars in GCN+ documentary ‘HOW TO WIN THE TOUR OF FLANDERS’ has never won a classic, but he has achieved two top tens and is known for his consistent performances.
“Consistency was always my strong suit. I think [winning] is something that's within me,” he says,. ‘I've never had very high peaks or very low periods; I'm always more or less the same. What definitely helps is a lot of training volume.
Naesen explains that his classics training consists of repeated sub-maximal efforts to give himself the endurance required to perform after more than six hours of racing. “Most of the time in these races, those who can do 10 repetitions, get dropped the 11th time, those who can do 12, get dropped the 13th time,” he says.
“But then again, there are some great classic riders that are way better than me that train at altitude in winter, that do super intense workouts, that do cyclocross. It's hard to say what's the key. You have to figure out what suits you best and what brings you with the best legs to the classics.”
As for how much ultimate success is down to timing and positioning, Naesen is adamant: “All of it.” Teamwork, however, he believes is not so important beyond the early stages of a race. “The helpers, their roles are more often than not quickly played out in the classics because the races break open so early. We’re quickly isolated. Their job is bringing their leaders as economically to the “money-time zone” as they can. Because the style of racing is not at all the same anymore – these days we see attacks with a hundred kilometres to go.’
Naesen admits he’s not a fan of this new aggressive racing style. “I hate it,” he laughs. “It's great as a spectator, but I wish it would stop. My attention, my intensity always goes up towards the finish. If a 30-guy group ever went early in the race, we always used to get a second chance. It would be a wake-up call and no more than that. Now, five guys go with 120km to go? If it's the wrong five guys, you can say ‘see you in a few days’.
‘I always “count my arrows” so to speak, and shoot the biggest ones on the last climbs. With how everything is going in this day and age, my big arrow is already shot before the last line.
“It’s an ungrateful sport,” he concludes. “When it's good, it's great. It's the best. But when you start to get in an unlucky spiral then it's the worst. The good moments make it all worth it.”