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The Incredible Journey of Oliver Naesen

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Some cycling fans first heard of Oliver Naesen when he was lying on the cobblestones of the Oude Kwaremont climb after world champion Peter Sagan crashed heavily while attacking in last year’s Tour of Flanders. Moments before, many were wondering, who’s the rider on the French AG2R team with the best classics riders in the world? Everyone got a better look at him two months later when he became the Belgian national champion. Cycling success came slowly for Naesen, who did not win his first race until his was 21 and delivered laundry 10 hours a day before turning professional at age 24 in 2015. But the long hours driving a truck gave him a special appreciation for his life as a pro, where he takes nothing for granted and is quickly becoming one of Belgium’s finest riders.

By James Startt

PELOTON Magazine: Oliver, for a lot of cycling fans the first time they saw you was crashing on the Kwaremont with Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet in the Tour of Flanders when you were all chasing solo leader Philippe Gilbert. A lot of people I was watching it with were, like, “Who is that AG2R guy?” You were having a pretty amazing day.

Oliver Naesen: Yeah, it was, but it wasn’t actually better than a lot of days in last year’s classics campaign. I had gotten third at Grand Prix E3 just two weeks earlier. But, yeah, that was one of my worst moments on one of my best days ever. I was riding really well and was really hoping to get on the podium or at least in the top five. For me, the race really started about 15 kilometers before when Sagan attacked on the Taaienberg and I was the first to chase him down. At that point I was like, “Oh yeah, today is the day when I will finish on the podium. There are only about 10 riders left so nothing can happen any more.” But that wasn’t exactly how it worked out.

Sagan attacked again on the Kwaremont as I expected. And at first I was super happy, because we dropped all of the guys that were not pulling in our group. At that point I was thinking, “Okay, now I need to get to the front so I can win this thing maybe. That was my dream.” I remember following Sagan up the left side. There is a bit of sand on the edge of the cobbles there, so it is a little less bumpy, but I was already feeling arms of fans and beer cups and thinking, “Oh man, we are close! We are really, really close! Please, Peter, just move to the center a bit, or to the other side!” I was super-strong that day but not strong enough to pick my own line and ride into the wind by myself. And all of a sudden he took that jacket and before I could realize it we were all on the ground!

PELOTON: You know that hindsight is 20/20 and it is no use going back over the what-ifs, but you were in a unique position. Do you feel as though you would have caught Gilbert before the finish? Were you confident of that or not really?

Naesen: Well, I have been asked that question about a million times and I still say just what I said after the race: The winner is always right. And Philippe Gilbert was one of the big favorites, and he attacked solo with 60 kilometers to go. You’ve got to have very big balls to do that. This is Philippe Gilbert! And he won.

PELOTON: Well, you found real success a couple of months later, winning the Belgian national championship. What was that like? I mean, you are riding for a French team and could not count on much help in the race. Essentially, you were going up alone against powerhouse teams like Quick-Step and Lotto.

Naesen: Oh, it was just one of those unbelievable moments. My team asked me if they wanted me to have someone come over from France to give me some support. But I was like, “Nah, I’ve got my training bike and two sets of race wheels.” I didn’t even get a hotel the night before. I just drove over with my girlfriend in the morning and lined up. I gave one set of wheels to another team in case I flatted and I just made up a bunch of water bottles the night before and gave them to my dad to hand up to me during the race, just like in the old times when I was a junior. I was super-relaxed, but pretty confident too, because I knew I was strong. I half-joked with my girlfriend going over, saying that I was going to become Belgian champion that day. But I was half-serious too! And as the race went on my chances got better. The course was really flat, but there was a big split. I ended up in the front and miraculously won the sprint—so the joke became reality.

PELOTON: Well, it is pretty rare that a guy with no teammates wins a national championship. I guess your dad and your girlfriend are pretty good teammates! So how did you actually get into cycling?

Naesen: Well, I was born on the northern coast of Belgium in Ostend, but we moved very quickly to Berlare, which is between Antwerp and Ghent. I am building a house with my girlfriend nearby.

PELOTON: So you still prefer to live and train in Belgium rather than moving to Monaco or something like that

Naesen: Absolutely. Why go live in a small apartment that costs thousands of euros to rent?

PELOTON: Well, you are not alone. Greg Van Avermaet still lives and trains around where he grew up.

Naesen: I know. We train together all the time. We have a group with my brother Lawrence, who rides for Lotto, and a few other pros and amateurs.

PELOTON: Does it get competitive on occasion?

Naesen: Always! I hope there are no groups that ride faster than us, because we already go so hard! We have a few sprint spots and we go up several of the classic climbs, like the Muur in Geraardsbergen, regularly.

PELOTON: How did you get into cycling? You mentioned your father. Did he race?

Naesen: Yeah, he raced as an amateur and gave me my first bike and got me into a cyclo-sportif club. I had a friend that I rode with a lot and I remember back in 2005 we were watching the world championships in Madrid when Tom Boonen won. I remember it like yesterday. My friend turned to me and said, “Next year, we are going to take out racing licenses!” And that is where it all started.

PELOTON: Did racing come easily?

Naesen: Oh no, not at all. The first five races I didn’t even finish and I think my first year my best result was like one 12th or 13th place in a small, small local race. I was 16 that year and until I was 21 I never won a race. And then in my last year as an under-23 rider I won the last three races at the end of the season. They were small races, but that was the beginning, and the year after I had a really good year and won a lot of races and was always on the podium. Then halfway through the next year, 2014, I got a small training contract to ride with Lotto at the end of the season, which led to my first pro contract with the Topsport Vlaanderen team.

PELOTON: Were you working or studying as well?

Naesen: I was at university studying sports science until I won those three races. And then I was working as a laundry delivery driver. I would get up at 5 in the morning and work from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m. every day…and then I would go train.

PELOTON: Wow! It must have been hard to train properly then….

Naesen: Well, the thing with university was that every year during exams I had one month completely off the bike during the exam period. But I had nothing like that when I was working. For those two years, I just slept, worked and trained. I’m actually prouder of those two years than what I have done as a professional. It was so hard; but also, somehow, that made me what I am today. I remember when I turned professional at Topsport, some guys would complain because they had to go train for five hours. I just thought to myself, “They have no clue what real life is!” Those years taught me what real life is. It was a valuable lesson. No, it was more than a valuable lesson—it was an unbeatable experience.

PELOTON: Wow! Those years must have really provided you with the toughness you need to make it as a professional. In fact, it seems like you have a lot of fun racing. You are always smiling, even when you are rolling to the start in terrible weather conditions like we had in Paris–Nice this year or Milan–San Remo. Nothing seems to bother you!

Naesen: Well, I actually believe that I have the best job in the world. For me it is not really a job. It’s more like a hobby you get paid for. There is nothing in my life that I can complain about!

PELOTON: You were obviously one of the great revelations of the 2017 season. What are your expectations this year?

Naesen: Well, my goals started with the Grand Prix E3 and they go until Paris–Roubaix and Amstel. What do I expect? Well, last year I got one podium and bad luck in Flanders and Roubaix. So I really hope that I don’t have the bad luck in these races. And I am going for podium or top five in all of them. I really hope to win one and I would be super-disappointed if, on the evening of Roubaix, I didn’t get any podiums or anything. I have very high hopes and expectations.

PELOTON: Do you feel that training has gone as well and that your condition is as good as last year?

Naesen: The good thing in modern cycling is that everything is measurable, with power meters and everything. And I know that I am better than last year. I am way better. That gives me a lot of confidence. It doesn’t mean that I will perform better than last year. But it is nice to know and it gives me confidence that, before the start of everything, I am in better shape.

PELOTON: Of all of the great races, do you have a sentimental favorite?

Naesen: Oh, that’s difficult. It would be between Paris–Roubaix and Flanders. Those are the two races I grew up with. On those days I never raced, I just spent the day on the sofa watching them. I doubt I will have the luxury to choose but if I did, well, I would have to choose Flanders.

PELOTON: Well, Roubaix and Flanders are actually very different races. Which one do you think suits you better?

Naesen: They are very different. If you look at the watts profile of the races, Flanders is way more intense, but in short bursts as you hit each climb. But in Roubaix you are pushing all of the time. I used to think that Roubaix is better for me. In my first years as a pro, Roubaix always felt easier. I would always be totally smashed after Flanders but I felt okay after Roubaix. But last year was the opposite. After Flanders I felt pretty fresh but after Roubaix I was just smashed. So I don’t know now.

PELOTON: Well, I will ask you again in a couple of weeks.

Naesen: Okay, hopefully I will have a better answer.