When AG2R Citroën Team signed Oliver Naesen at the end of 2016, he was seen as a way of quietly improving their meagre haul of ranking points. They were heavily focused on stage racing with Romain Bardet, who’d just finished second in the Tour de France, and Naesen - on the rise but still unheralded - was largely left to his own devices with minimal expectation. Four years on, the Belgian finds himself at the centre of a revolution at the French team, who are ditching the Grand Tours - for the immediate future at least - and going all-in for the Classics.
With Bardet and Pierre Latour both leaving, Nasesen signed a bumper new long-term contract in the middle of lockdown last year, and has since been joined by a wave of Classics reinforcements that includes Greg Van Avermaet and Bob Jungels.
"Let’s start at the beginning of last year, which was the last of my contract. I had to ask myself one question and one question only - how can I win a big Classic race?" Naesen tells Cyclingnews.
"Is it as a sole leader, fighting against individually stronger riders - because some of my rivals are stronger for sure - and collectively stronger teams? Or do I try and be part of something stronger collectively? Luckily, the team solved that for me."
With so many fresh faces at AG2R’s January training camp in Spain, we asked Naesen to talk us through the riders he’ll be going into battle alongside this spring.
"I probably sound too positive," he notes half-way through, "but I’m genuinely so happy with all the guys they’ve brought to the team."
Greg Van Avermaet (35 years old, from CCC Team)
Greg has been my example since day one. We are close friends and have trained in the same group since I turned pro. Often at the start of winter, you can go out with 20 riders but when it’s really time to start training, there are only two or three left, and it was very often just him and me. That’s where we really bonded.
He was already on the top level when I started, then I became more and more around him in the finals. He tried to get me to come to BMC in 2016, but [manager] Jim Ochowicz didn’t want it, which is perfectly fine. It was always a dream to be in a team together but after that it felt sort of unrealistic, since we were both aiming for the same things. But now, as the years have gone by, we both kind of know where we are in the hierarchy of international cycling. I realised I needed him and I think he realised he needed me - or someone like me.
Neither Greg nor I are top favourites, so we’ll have to do something special to win a big Classic, and the only way to do that is by using each other. I probably don’t want to be sprinting against Wout Van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel. To get away from those guys who are a little bit stronger and way faster, you tend to be alone or in a smaller group, and to get the chance to be alone, you need a teammate behind. It’s the importance of the collective. It’s what QuickStep have proven year after year with different riders, and it’s kind of what we’re hoping for. It also obliges me - right now even - to be on top of my game. I have to fight for my position again, which is great.
I cannot imagine being disappointed if I have a teammate on the podium. We’ve already done some races together for Belgium and we have very open communication. I wouldn’t mind telling him if I’m feeling shit, and he wouldn’t mind telling me he’s on a great day and asking me for full devotion. And vice versa. Honesty goes the longest way.
Bob Jungels (28, from Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Last year I started hearing noises that Bob Jungels was coming to the team and I didn’t really believe it at first because he seemed like someone quite unreachable for us. I spoke to him at Strade Bianche and asked if there was any truth in the rumours and he said 'yeah I think it’s going to happen.' I was really stoked. He’s an all-round rider with an unbelievably high level on each terrain - which is his luxury and also his weakness. It’s very difficult to choose something if you’re amazing at everything.
I remember when he did the cobbled Classics for the first time and immediately won Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne [in 2019]. We were on some random cobbled section - not even a hard one - and Bob was just going so hard that he dropped nearly everyone. I was the last guy with him, along with Sebastian Langeveld, but he then dropped both of us to win solo. It was just like ‘wow, this is probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to me!’ I’ve never been destroyed like that in my entire life. I told him that soon after at Paris-Nice. We hadn’t spoken before but I went up to him and said ’that’s something I’ve never seen in my life, actually.'
We will have to see how many cobbled races he does this year. He'll do a lot with Benoît [Cosnefroy] and the Ardennes, but he may do Flanders with us. I really hope he’ll do some, because that’s where I think he has the biggest chance of being great. He already won Liège, and it’ll be difficult to repeat an effort like that. If I was a DS, I’d put him in the cobbled Classics for sure.
He’s maybe the guy who can do the longer-range, pre-final attack - one where if I saw it happening I’d think ‘this is too early.' But with a guy like that you never know. He’s not someone who would benefit from doing all the races - some are even too easy for him to have a good chance. But the harder ones - E3, Flanders, Roubaix - he can win them all. Worst case scenario: he can be great in all of them.
Gijs Van Hoecke (29, from CCC Team)
You wanna see the sickest FTP test on the planet? Gijs is the guy. He’s our training buddy as well, and also my roommate here, and we often talk about how strong he is. You should actually talk to one of our coaches, or someone from his old teams, and they will tell you: 'he’s the guy with the numbers.'
We’re always like 'wow, give me your legs for one day and I would win everything.' But he has yet to show it in the race. There’s some work to be done in psychology and confidence for him, I think. It shouldn’t be about positioning, because he was world champion on the track when he was 19, so in terms of bike handling, he can do anything with a bike. I don’t know. I think it’s a fear of failure, you know? I’m really curious to see how we can help him with that.
Physically, though, he’s all there. On paper, he’s maybe even the strongest of us all. His numbers are unbelievable. We did this three-minute test this week, and he had like 100 watts more than me. I was like 'what?!' It was just off the charts. I honestly believe he’s the kind rider, who, if we manage to unblock something in his head and teach him how to go beyond himself and really ride until he drops, to really hurt himself in a race, then I think we could see the best of the best.
Stan Dewulf (23, from Lotto Soudal)
Last year the team asked, 'Oli, do you know some guys who are out of contract next year who are like promising for the Classics?', and the first name I could think of was Stan Dewulf.
I know him a bit - he also doesn’t live too far from me. He’s a very smart guy, still studying in university. He won Paris-Roubaix as a last-year U23 and if you look at his results as a neo-pro… I remember going over Paterberg and often that’s like quality control - if the group that’s still there afterwards is like 20-25 riders, those are always riders with a future in the Classics. And I remember seeing this neo-pro there and was like ‘wow, this is pretty promising.’ He’s good on hillier terrain as well. Last year they made him to Liège, Brabantse Pijl, and the Vuelta, and I saw he was attacking and closing gaps the whole time.
I had the feeling he could be the next good Belgian guy for Lotto Soudal, and I knew they’d be very keen to hold onto him. I told the team ‘I think Stan is happy at Lotto, but we should at least try it.' So I gave him a call, and he said ‘thanks, it’s very flattering, but I’m happy at Lotto.' But then, as you know, Lotto had all these problems last year, and they basically didn’t really fight to hold onto him, which is mind-blowing.
Michael Schär (34, from CCC Team)
Micky has been Greg’s right-hand man since forever - like 2010 when they went to BMC. He’s a super nice guy - I’ve known him since forever as well. He’s very strong but not like punchy or sprinty. He’s a pure, pure workhorse, actually. When you turn on the TV for the first half of a Classic, very often it’s him pulling and positioning, and he can go very far. That’s been his role since forever.
I don’t know him to race with but I know he’s very communicative. He’s very much a talker - more of a talker than anyone else on the team here. If something isn’t good, he’ll tell you right away. Likewise, if something’s good, you’ll know immediately also. He’s not someone who keeps things to himself. He ventilates, with the goal of improving the group feeling.
Damien Touzé (24, from Cofidis)
I didn’t know Damien very well. I know he did some Classics already, he has quite a good sprint, he’s very punchy, and he’s a training animal - those were the things I knew. But I informed myself with a good friend of mine at Cofidis, Dimitri Claeys, and asked: ‘what’s with this guy? Does he fit in a Classics team?’ I asked him a bunch of questions, and he was like ‘oh yeah, I cannot believe Cofidis let him go - for sure he’s the biggest talent at Cofidis and I cannot believe how it’s possible they let him go.' And I was like OK, curious to discover that - always nice to hear.
He has done some Classics already but it’s very different when you’re in a team with good leaders - it’s way easier to get into position. He will have to discover this in his new role. It’s difficult to define his role, since I don’t know him well, but AG2R has always been a team where you create your own opportunities. If he’s good, then also the sky is the limit… he could be very good. I hope so anyway.
Marc Sarreau (27, from Groupama-FDJ)
Marc is a sprinter, and we’re only going to do two Classics together: Kuurne and Gent-Wevelgem. He’s also doing Scheldeprijs and De Panne, but they’re pure sprint races and I won’t be there. It will be useful to have a sprint guy back in the bunch. Gent-Wevelgem is often decided on the Kemmelberg, and I often have a good sprint there, but if he’s around we just have to communicate.
Kuurne, on the other hand, I’ve done it so many times, and been in a good position in the final kilometres, only for it to be a bunch sprint after all. It will be cool to have a sprinter in the bunch taking it easy all day to go and snatch something up if I get caught.
The pre-existing crop
My brother [Lawrence Naesen], Julian Duval, and Alexis Gougeard, all have more of a domestique role. Again, we’re never going to be the team with the top favourites on the start line, with all these sensational things we’ve seen from Mathieu and Wout, so we’re not a team where you have to make guys pull from the start. It’s very much up to them to go as far as they can go. And also to anticipate. Attack before the big guns attack, and anything can happen. We’ve already seen many Classics have been won far from the finish line. I would like to see us be more offensive with guys like them.
There’s also Tony Gallopin who has a love-hate relationship with the Classics! I don’t know if he’ll do any this year. I know he wants to join the club of stage winners in every Grand Tour and the Giro is the one that’s missing. I love Tony, he’s one of my best friends on the team, and when he’s good and motivated, he’s amazing - just top class. You really want that guy by your side but it all depends on what he wants.
I've said this before, Benoît Cosnefroy could be amazing in the cobbled races but he's already amazing in the Ardennes races, so he's sticking to that for now.
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