Belgian champion Oliver Naesen says his AG2R La Mondiale team can go into this weekend's opening Belgian weekend at Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne with big ambitions after his top 10 finishes in the races last year.
Naesen finished seventh in Omloop last year in a group 52 seconds behind the podium trio of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac). In Kuurne, Naesen finished eighth from a large group that was six seconds behind winner Sagan's lead group of five.
"Last year, I finished twice in the top 10 in these races," Naesen said, "and so I think we can be ambitious."
With the changes to this year's Omloop finish - which will use much of what used to be the Tour of Flanders finale: the Tenbosse, Muur van Geraardsbergen, and Bosberg all come in the final 27km of the 196.2km race - Naesen believes the Saturday race favours his skillset even more.
"Now we will borrow the Mur de Grammont, and that suits me well," he said. "We have a great team to compete this weekend."
Joining Naesen at Omloop het Nieuwsblad will be Stijn Vandenbergh, Alex Gougeard, Swiss champ Silvan Dillier, Julien Duval, Gediminas Bagdonas and Nico Denz. AG2R La Mondiale will line up a nearly identical sqaud the next day at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, with the exception of Quentin Jauregui substituting in for Gougeard.
The team will likely be backing Naesen both days, despite the 27-year-old's less-than-ideal preparation for the weekend, which includes a recent broken nose.
"I crashed in the fourth stage of the Ruta Del Sol and hit my nose, but that does not hinder my breathing," he said. "And before that, I was a little sick. That's never ideal, but I can manage it. And with the first two races of the Belgian calendar, a new season starts for me: the classics."
AG2R La Mondiale for Omloop het Nieuwsblad: Stijn Vandenbergh, Alex Gougeard, Oliver Naesen, Silvan Dillier, Julien Duval, Gediminas Bagdonas and Nico Denz
AG2R La Mondiale for Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne: Stijn Vandenbergh, Quentin Jauregui, Oliver Naesen, Silvan Dillier, Julien Duval, Gediminas Bagdonas and Nico Denz