Naesen: In my head I've won Flanders a thousand times

Milan-San Remo runner-up's cobbled campaign begins on Friday with E3 BinckBank Classic

There's a strand of sports psychology that advocates for visualising yourself in action as a means of preparation for a big event. Pioneered by Richard Suinn in the 1970s, studies have shown the benefits of this 'imagery rehearsal' can even be physical as well as mental. If that's anything to go by, Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) will have something of an advantage when it comes to the Tour of Flanders next Sunday and the other cobbled Classics.

"In my head I've already won Flanders a thousand times,” he says on the eve of his 2019 Classics campaign on home roads, which starts with the E3 BinckBank Classic on Friday.

"It's only in reality that I haven't won it. In my dreams I've won it, and I see scenarios where I will win it, which doesn't mean I'm going to win it, but I know more or less how it will feel. It kind of prepares you for the real-life situation.

"When you're training on those roads, or riding alone and seeing yourself alone in front, or even when you're just at home sitting on the sofa, you're thinking, 'What will it be like to win the Tour of Flanders?' I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's how it is."

Naesen's dreams are no doubt shared by many young Belgian kids but, in explaining how much Flanders means to him, Naesen shows himself to be a true romantic. He effortlessly conveys the passion for cycling in this part of the world, and the fever that grips it for a couple of weeks each spring. When he speaks with such enthusiasm, you can't help but also feel excited for the races ahead.

"For us, this is what we grew up with. It's the stuff of dreams. Everyone watches it and talks about it. This period of the season controls the life of the average Flemish person, so it's very important. It's almost religious," he says.

"It's what my year revolves around. You can still have a good season even if the Classics don't work out, but for me, personally, this is all that matters. The Tour de France and all that comes after is nice, but it doesn't come close to this period. When I do the Tour, I get out of the bus and everyone is, like, 'Oh, it's not Romain Bardet.' Here, everyone along the road knows me, and the only thing I hear while racing is my name."

Being a 'home' rider does have its advantages. Sixty-nine of the 102 editions of the Tour of Flanders have been won by Belgians, as well as 38 of the 61 editions of the E3. Naesen points out that "some guys are so strong they can win without having a clue where they are on the map" but reckons his local knowledge counts for something.

"I've gone over these roads so often. For the parcours of the E3, I can tell you every hole in the ground. I know it 100 per cent. For me, it's something I need, not being the strongest. I need to have all the other stuff on point."

The 2019 Milan-San Remo podium (L-R) Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)Naesen on the Milan-San Remo podium with Julian Alaphilippe and Michal Kwiatkowski (Getty Images)

Form

Along with the daydreaming and the pothole mapping, Naesen also has a more significant string to his bow heading into the cobbled Classics: form. He was runner-up at Milan-San Remo on Saturday, making it into a very select group over the Poggio and picking off some fast finishers to take his first Monument podium.

Naesen – a product of the Topsport system, who came to prominence in 2016 – established himself as a Classics contender in 2017 in his first season with AG2R La Mondiale, but feels people forgot about him after a freak run of crashes that derailed his 2018 spring. However, MIlan-San Remo has put him well and truly back on the radar.

"The reassuring thing is that, during Paris-Nice, I felt my shape heading towards a peak. If your growing form collides perfectly with the calendar of all your big goals, it's something to be very happy about. That's what keeps me calm now. If last week you saw that you still had work to do, then you have a big problem. But, luckily for me, that's not the case," he says.

"I'm very confident, but I’m also realistic. I know that, with my four victories in my career, I'm not all of a sudden the big favourite for all the Classics, which I read online from time to time. To win them all... I think that would maybe be a bit much. But I really hope to win something. I think I'm ready for a first Classics win, so it would be really nice to do it this year – and maybe on Friday..."

The most striking thing about Milan-San Remo was the fact that Naesen, although unable to topple an imperious Julian Alaphilippe, beat the likes of Peter Sagan, Michal Kwiatkowski and Alejandro Valverde to the line. Although he is quick to point out other factors – such as choosing the right wheel – it was nevertheless a sign that he has it in his locker to finish a race off from a small group.

"I've been working on my sprint, because I know it's a major thing as a Classics rider," he says. "More often than not, we finish in a small group, so if you don't work on your sprint, it's going to be difficult to one day win one."

Naesen regularly trains with Greg Van Avermaet and explained – after losing out to the Olympic champion at the E3 in 2016 in a three-up finish – that he has never beaten him in a training effort.

"I have different tactics now," he jokes. "I attack from far away when he doesn't expect it, or from the lights or something. But mano a mano, I haven't beaten him yet. He's still just a bit stronger – it's as simple as that. I don't know why, but in training everyone beats me in the sprints. My best sprints are in a race after x amount of hours. In training, I don't know why, but I'm incapable of going as deep as I can in a race, so that's why it doesn't matter to me that Greg always beats me in training, as long as I'm able to beat him in a race."

Naesen on the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen last spring

Taking on Deceuninck-QuickStep

Van Avermaet, however, will be far from the only rider Naesen has to worry about over the next couple of weeks. Deceuninck-QuickStep, he acknowledges, "hold the keys to the races".

The star-studded Belgian team have dominated the one-day races so far this spring, with Zdenek Stybar winning the Omloop Het Neiuwsblad, Bob Jungels winning Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Florian Sénéchal winning Le Samyn, and Alaphilippe winning Strade Bianche as well as Milan-San Remo. All that without Philippe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert being truly let off the leash yet.

"QuickStep don't have one rider as strong as Sagan, nor do they have one rider as strong as Greg, but their strength is their collective," Naesen says.

"They will dictate the races. If a group goes, most likely I'm going to be alone, but there'll be two or three QuickStep guys who are more or less as strong as me. Then you have to start counting every pedal stroke. If one goes, the others say they're not pulling anymore, and your race can be over."

The key, Naesen says, is: "Don't overcook yourself, time it to perfection, be where you need to be when you need to be there. Then you have to be smart. I'm often the rider who pulls full gas in groups like this and also the guy who in the last 10km starts to feel a little emptier. It's important to keep a view of your opponents, so don't always be on the front."

Naesen will, first and foremost, be hoping his run of crashes and bad luck is consigned to 2018. If so, there's no reason to suggest that first big Classics victory is out of his reach. He himself says he feels "ready" to win one. Indeed, he's pictured it to the point of high definition.

Is this the spring when his dreams come true?

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