Following his surprising podium finish in E3 Harelbeke last week, Belgian Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) is focused on Sunday's Tour of Flanders as his next chance to put a Classics win under his belt.
The 26-year-old, who raced for IAM Cycling last year, found himself in an envious-yet-difficult spot in E3 Harelbeke when he made the final three-rider selection with an on-form Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and a resurgent Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors).
The winning trio formed out of a six-man group that bridged to the early breakaway, distancing themselves from the rest on the Oude Kwaremont and then cooperating until the finish line was in sight. Gilbert, stuck on the front, kept looking back waiting for one of his rivals to open up the sprint. Naesen finally lost patience and jumped, but it was too soon and Van Avermaet surged past to take the win. Gilbert was second, with Naesen in third.
Naesen was obviously disappointed after coming so close to the victory, but the podium result was part of a steady progression after he was sixth at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, eighth at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and seventh at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Naesen most recently finished 22nd at Gent-Wevelgem, a result he says does not reflect his current form.
"I had great legs at Gent-Wevelgem, but the result did not show it in the end," he said. "I am still satisfied with what I have accomplished in the past couple of races, especially at the Record Bank E3 Harelbeke where I managed to get a place on the podium."
Naesen, who has two professional wins at Bretagne Classic-Ouest-France last year and at La Poly Normande in 2015, has taken a big confidence boost from his run of top 10 finishes in this year's Classics, and he expects the trajectory to continue.
"I think I have turned a corner; I was hoping to be at this level at the beginning of the season," he admitted. "I am all ready for the Ronde van Vlaanderen, I know the roads by heart and my condition is there. It will be a long day of racing, more than six hours, in order to stay well position till the end."
Naesen will be able to rely on the cobbled talents of former Quick-Step super domestique Stijn Vandenbergh, who was fourth at La Ronde in 2014, to help keep him in position as part of AG2R's eight-rider roster, which also includes Gediminas Bagdonas, Rudy Barbier, Nico Denz, Julien Duval, Alexis Gougeard and Hugo Houle.
"We will do a reconnaissance of the course during the week to refresh our memories of the route again," Naesen said.
AG2R La Mondiale roster for Tour of Flanders (April 2) and Scheldeprijs (April 4): Gediminas Bagdonas, Rudy Barbier, Nico Denz, Julien Duval, Alexis Gougeard, Hugo Houle, Oliver Naesen, Stijn Vandenbergh.