Another weekend, another podium finish for Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale). Second at Milan-San Remo last week, the Belgian produced a more than passable sprint to take third behind Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) at Gent-Wevelgem this weekend.
Naesen has built his reputation as a man happiest throwing himself into attacks and operating off the front of the peloton, but on Sunday, he admitted that missing the split was almost a blessing. An hour into this raucous edition of Gent-Wevelgem, a select group of 21 riders forged clear in the crosswinds near Gistel, but Naesen was not altogether displeased to find himself in a larger chasing group alongside all of the Deceuninck-QuickStep grandees.
"Today I missed the first split, but I didn't mind that much, and I didn't panic," Naesen said afterwards. "It was a race of 250 kilometres, and I have often been in the situation before of riding like a fool only to be caught in the headwind without a prize. For once I was happy not to be up there. I know myself; I might have done too much. I was comfortable in the peloton, because nine times out of 10, we were going to get back on."
That split made for a relentless day of racing, but the chase efforts of CCC, Lotto Soudal and Deceuninck-QuickStep brought most of the escapees to heel ahead of the final ascents of the Baneberg and Kemmelberg. A five-man resistance headlined by Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and Luke Rowe (Team Sky) survived until the final 20 kilometres, before a reduced peloton of 35 riders contested the victory in Wevelgem.
"It was a real race, and that's why you ride a bike. That's what the Classics are," Naesen said. "Today it was full gas from start to finish, and that suits me well. As I get older, I find I'm stronger when the race is long."
Naesen was among the strongest on the final climbs, although he was not quite able to match Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) when they accelerated on the Kemmelberg.
"Stybar impressed on the Kemmel, just like Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel [Correndon-Circus]," Naesen admitted.
In recent seasons, Naesen has reasoned that he would have to escape alone to win a major Classic given his relative lack of finishing speed, but he will carry greater confidence in his sprint into the Tour of Flanders after beating some recognised fast men to finish on the podium at Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem.
"I used my experience in the sprint. It was windy so I didn't come off the wheels until the last moment," he said, after coming home behind Kristoff and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo). "I'm still looking for a big win, but I noticed today that maybe I can rely on my sprint."
The Tour of Flanders, of course, remains the overriding goal for Naesen, who said last week that he had already visualised himself winning in Oudenaarde "a thousand times". After placing eighth at the E3 BinckBank Classic on Friday, Naesen appeared heartened by his result in Wevelgem.
"This is the third weekend in a row I've been on the podium," Naesen said, having also placed second on the final stage of Paris-Nice two weeks ago. "That's a good sign for the week ahead, with Dwars door Vlaanderen [on Wednesday] and then the Tour of Flanders."