At the end of last year, Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) joked that if he wound up in a three-man move with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and someone else, then that someone else would not be winning the race.
It was more a light-hearted illustration of his friendship with the Olympic champion, with whom he regularly trains, than arrogant bravado. Naesen was nevertheless proved right at E3-Harelbeke, where that very situation came to pass and Philippe Gilbert was left sandwiched in between the two.
Despite a promising long-range sprint, Naesen, the firm underdog, had to settle for third as Van Avermaet spared no room for sentiment and passed him just before the line.
"It's just like in training – I've never managed to beat Greg in a sprint," joked Naesen behind the podium. "That losing streak just continues."
That losing streak continues but so does an impressive run of results in this season's classics – 7th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 8th at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and 6th at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Naesen, who turned pro with Topsport-Vlaanderen in 2015, showed great promise at the end of last year in his debut WorldTour campaign with IAM, winning the Bretagne Classic. His display at E3 is another confirmation of his progression, even if it lacked the breakthrough bang of victory.
"When you're in the front with those two guys, you know it's really big," Naesen told Cyclingnews after returning to the team bus, saying he felt "mostly happiness" rather than disappointment.
"I knew I was the weakest of the three, so I tried to surprise them in the sprint. They only came over me 20 metres from the line so I think I did a good sprint. In the end, the result, if it's not the win, second or third for me is the same, so I'm not disappointed at all."
Naesen was well positioned when the race came to life on the Taaienberg, and followed the acceleration from Philippe Gilbert soon after, making it into what proved to be the decisive selection of the race. Teammate Alexis Gougeard, who had been in the break, helped drive the advantage before the Oude Kwaremont, with just under 40km remaining, provided a true test of strength. Naesen rose to the top with Van Avermaet and Gilbert.
"On the Kwaremont we split the group again, and with Gilbert and Van Avermaet out in front then you know it’s money time," said Naesen, who conceded he went from being one of the strongest in a group of 10 to the weakest in a group of three, losing contact briefly when Gilbert accelerated on the tarmacked slopes of the Tiegemberg.
"I felt a little bit vulnerable," he said. "The other two were better than me – that was clear on the Tiegemberg. On the cobbled climbs I can be up there with the best, but on a climb like that, when they really explode, Gilbert and Greg, then I have to pass for a moment."
He also had to pass on attacking in the closing kilometres, explaining that he wouldn’t have been able to consolidate any gap he managed to open up. "The sprint was the only option I had," he said, and he very nearly pulled off the coup, opening a gap that Van Avermaet had to really fight to close.
In any case, the performance will have done no harm whatsoever to Naesen's confidence ahead of the Tour of Flanders next Sunday, where he has every reason to be hopeful of a big result, even if he feels Paris-Roubaix suits him better.
"Bring it on," he smiled when asked how he now felt about De Ronde.
"I just want to be back in the top five, top 10. I feel like that is my spot. Finishing third was above the expectations but if you're among the ten best riders at the start, then a lot is possible. That's what I'm always saying. That's what's fun about this kind of racing."