Belgian champion Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) is one of the outsiders for the win in Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. The 27-year-old rider feels he's got the legs to win on the velodrome in Roubaix but needs the luck he missed during the previous races. To shake off the dominance of the Quick-Step Floors 'wolfpack', Naesen came up with a tactic: ride aggressively.
Specialist of the spring Classics often have one preferred race; mostly they choose between the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris Roubaix. It's probably one of the most asked questions, but Naesen still took it seriously. "It's a difficult question. They're so different. I like them both. Two years ago I would've said Paris-Roubaix, last year I would've said Flanders and now I don't know."
It's a luxury to have the choice between two races, two Monuments. Winning the Ronde is no longer an option this year. Last week, Naesen crashed before the Muur and no longer had the energy to be a factor. The most important thing right now for Naesen is to be strong and stay out of trouble.
Several crashes have characterized his season so far, with tumbles in Valencia, Ruta del Sol and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. At E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen, he crashed on his knee, troubling his build-up to the Tour of Flanders, where he fell again ahead of the Muur. After the Ronde, he didn't dare to say out loud that he might be luckier in Paris-Roubaix.
At the Paris-Roubaix team presentation in Compiègne on Saturday afternoon, Naesen sounded more upbeat that right after the Ronde. "My knee is ça va, not super but ça va. It's still the same as last week just before the Ronde. I thought it'd be over by now, but that's not the case. There's still a bit of fluid in the knee. They can't take it out. It's too risky with the eye on infections. It bothers me a little, but I don't think it'll make me ride slower. I just know that it'll hurt on Monday, let's put it like that," Naesen said.
A journalist wondered how much Naesen was affected by his knee injury, asking if it was 10 per cent, but Naesen sounded confident. "Not 10 percent. When you're 10 per cent down to your usual form, then you shouldn't take the start. If I don't think about, then I will not ride any slower. It's a mental thing. When I'm in the race, riding between the crowds, then I'll have other problems on my mind, like holding the wheel ahead of me."
Due to his string of bad luck and the dominance of Quick-Step Floors, Naesen feels his spring campaign wasn't as good as expected. Despite his crashes, Naesen still managed fourth in E3 Harelbeke, sixth in Gent-Wevelgem and eleventh in the Ronde.
"I was riding at my level. I rode for it, trained for it but I didn't get the results I was hoping for. The only possible conclusion one can make after that is that it wasn't good enough. Tomorrow is the race of the final chance really."
Last year, a spectacular crash with a spectator during the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont took out Naesen. One week later, he was strong in Paris-Roubaix, but an early crash and endless chasing wore him down.
"Last year, I rode inside the top 20 on the first pavé sector, and I told my teammate who rode next to me that our day would be saved if we would stay in this position. At that moment Danilo Napolitano, who rode just ahead of me, broke his handlebars. We both tumbled over him, inevitably, and we end up chasing between the cars.
"I know these sections, and I know how to ride them, but once you're between the cars, then you only see orange dust and not the potholes. You've got to take all risks in the world and pass the cars through the grass at the side of the road. You hit every pothole, and that's why I punctured every time. It's bad luck, but it starts at that one moment."
Greg Van Avermaet is one of the riders in Naesen's training group 'the pearl fishers', and he was asked what they talked about recently. "That we're both very good but not riding into the prices," Naesen laughed. The duo surely discussed tactics too although they’re rivals in the race.
"It's not possible to ride together against Quick-Step. Imagine you're in front and I would agree with Stuyven and Greg to each focus on one rider: you take Terpstra, you take Stybar, and I'll take Yves. If they ride away with two riders, then there's still two riders gone. It's still not good for me. You're on your own in cycling, except when you've got teammates. There are so many things that need to happen. You've got to be able to keep up with them, and you’ve got to be able to beat them in the sprint. If they don't have a rider in the breakaway, then they'll close it down, that's for sure."
With that knowledge in the back of his mind, Naesen feels that the winning tactic will be to get ahead with a somewhat slower Quick-Step rider. "You have to ride aggressive against them. They have the strongest team in numbers and individually. If you want to have a chance on the victory then you have to go to the finish with one of them but not too much, and you have to hope that he's a little bit slower than you in the sprint," Naesen said.
Naesen doesn't dare to predict how he'll be going during the Hell of the North but he does have a tactic ready in case he's in the mix for the win. "We're going to have a tailwind, and it's a dry race so for sure it's going to be fast, that's a certainty. The usual suspects will be strong. Who will have bad luck and who won't. That's the question. It's really impossible to predict anything about that.
When asked about what he thought of the dominance from the so-called 'wolfpack', the Quick-Step Floor team, Naesen felt they've earned their success. "This is not a coincidence. They have the numbers, individual strength, a bit of luck,” Naesen said. He did wonder what the real reason was that the Belgian team was winning so much.
"I’ve read that the Quick-Step's supremacy might mean that the rest isn't good enough. Maybe that's the case; I don’t know. They’re not training more than we do. If you ask them if they do the maximum they can for their sport, then they'll say. But if you ask me, then I’ll say the same. It's a puzzle that falls together for one team but not for the others. If you read the newspapers after the [Belgian] Opening Weekend, then you would read that Quick-Step failed, that they were bad. The others received a lot of stars and were good.
"Now, more than a month later they turn out to be very good, and we're not that great. It's puzzling. I hope the puzzle fits together for me on the Carrefour de l’Arbre tomorrow. It's about time."