It’s not just a bike race. Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) crossed the finish line of the Tour of Flanders in 23rd place, 2:32 behind winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), but he should have had more, could have had much more, and he made no attempt to soften or disguise his disappointment.
"Immeasurable" was how he described it to Belgium’s state broadcaster, Sporza.
The 26-year-old Belgian, whose steady progress since turning pro in 2015 shows no sign of abating, was in the esteemed company of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) in the closing phases of the race, but the hopes that were crystallising in his mind evaporated suddenly when Sagan crashed on the Oude Kwaremont and brought the entire trio down with him.
At that point the race was hanging in the balance, with 16 kilometres remaining and a gap of just under a minute to close – three strong riders against one who was surely fading after going solo from 55 kilometres out.
"I was convinced that we would be riding the four of us to the finish," said Naesen, who was already thinking about what would have been – win, podium, or fourth - the most important result of his career to date.
"We were with three riders who were willing to commit. I wasn’t planning to stay on the wheels, Greg and Sagan certainly not. All respect for Phil because he showed an endless amount of guts. The way he won today was splendid. But I’m thinking about myself in these moments and it’s really something to cry about."
His intense disappointment is a reflection of the confidence he had. Indeed, Naesen always brims with self-belief – without it ever spilling over into arrogance – and it has generally proved well placed. After a stand-out back-end to last season – his first at WorldTour level – he has made another step up campaign as AG2R-La Mondiale's classics leader, finishing on the podium at E3-Harelbeke last week.
"I could have told you that at the start, that I was one of the strongest guys," he said outside the AG2R bus a little later. "But that’s the Classics for you. A lot can happen, there are always crashes. Now it’s my turn to have the bad luck, and unfortunately it was on the biggest race of the year.
"I knew that this race was super important. I did everything for it. In my head it was the Tour of Flanders and all the rest below."
All the rest below, but Naesen does in fact believe Paris-Roubaix suits him better than Flanders, and he’ll need to pick himself up and lick his wounds – and he did require medical attention at the bus – ahead of the Hell of the North next Sunday.
"There again I’m one of the strongest cards again, that’s for sure. We can still do good things," he ventured, though it was clear that he was too far from fully absorbing the disappointment of this day to think coherently about matters a full week away.
"Everything you miss out on… it’s not just bike racing; it’s a bit more than that, I think," he concluded forlornly.
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