Oliver Naesen confirms Tour of Flanders ambitions

Belgian champion downplays knee injury ahead of the Ronde

Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) has confirmed that he will line out at the Tour of Flanders despite sustaining a knee injury in the crash that forced him to abandon Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.

The Belgian champion's AG2R La Mondiale team were sceptical about his prospects of riding the Ronde in the immediate aftermath of Dwars door Vlaanderen but the mood music began to change when an x-ray in hospital in Ghent that evening showed no fracture to the knee.

Naesen was provisionally listed in AG2R's Tour of Flanders team on Thursday, and after a final test in training on Friday he confirmed his participation and colourfully downplayed the idea that his injury could severely affect his performance this weekend.

"It's just a scratch to the bodywork. I'm still strong enough to do something on Sunday," said Naesen. "I tested myself more intensively this morning. Small efforts don't worry me, it's more in the longer ones that I'm worried for my left knee, but I'm not panicking."

Naesen was a faller 75 kilometres into Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen, and though he was able to remount and re-join the peloton, he quickly opted to abandon the race. Directeur sportif Julien Jurdie admitted to Cyclingnews afterwards that he feared the worst for the Ronde given how rare it was to hear the normally stoical Naesen complain about feeling pain after a crash.

"It's true, I'm not a rider who abandons easily, but it was something else on Wednesday," Naesen said. "I really hurt myself and I feared the worst for Sunday. That's why I put the brakes on straightaway. But it's getting better and better. On Thursday, the pain was already less bad and today it's better again."

Naesen was the revelation of last season's Spring Classics campaign, placing third at E3 Harelbeke and delivering a string of strong displays across the cobbles. He looked set to contest the podium at the Tour of Flanders, only to come down in a crash with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and training partner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) near the top of the Oude Kwaremont.

The Belgian has been equally consistent this year, taking fourth at E3 Harelbeke and sixth two days later at Gent-Wevelgem. He told Cyclingnews in the build-up to the Classics that he would exchange a series of placings this year for one big victory, and, injury notwithstanding, he is part of an extended list of contenders for the win in Oudenaarde on Sunday.

"I could give you a long list of riders with a chance of winning. Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke, Tiesj Benoot, Philippe Gilbert, Jasper Stuyven, there's an embarrassment of choice. It's maybe the first time that there are so many possibilities," Naesen said.

"I'd put myself somewhere among them, but I have to follow the right move and be alert for the whole race. I'll set out from Antwerp with a lot of confidence."

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