Oliver Naesen has told the Belgian media that his AG2R La Mondiale team's slightly more relaxed approach to this year's Tour de France – with Romain Bardet saying that he's targeting stage wins in the mountains, rather than a high overall finish – will at times free him up to try to win a stage for himself.
"Romain is aiming less for the overall ranking. Fourth place no longer interests him; he would rather win a stage," Naesen said on Thursday, speaking to reporters ahead of the start of the race, according to Het Laatste Nieuws. "That also means less stress for us. In the past, every second counted – it was constant paying attention and being alert."
Since choosing to race the rescheduled Tour de France – having originally targeted the Giro d'Italia – Bardet was set to co-lead AG2R with Pierre Latour, although Bardet appears to have emerged as the French WorldTour team's main protected rider in recent weeks, and Naesen made no mention of Latour.
"Romain is still our leader, but I will have more chances in the 'intermediate [non-mountain] stages'," Naesen continued. "A Tour stage is a goal in the career of every rider – everyone dreams of it. It's not the same as winning the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, but it is only just below it."
Classics specialist Naesen will target both Flanders and Roubaix on their rescheduled calendar slots in October, but the Belgian's already identified a number of stages on which he might be able to infiltrate the key breakaway at the Tour.
"There are opportunities for baroudeurs – riders who want to attack. I'm not even sure that the first stage will end in a sprint. I can see at least four or five opportunities," he said, implying that there could even be a chance for him to take the race's first yellow jersey in Nice on Saturday.
"Now is the time to prove that I can win a stage in the Tour. In recent years, I've always had a good excuse that I had to work for a leader," explained Naesen. "If I don't take that chance now, it might disappear. Now it's up to me."
Earlier this week, when AG2R's finalised Tour squad was unveiled, team manager Vincent Lavenu praised Naesen's ability for selflessness and being able to help his leaders, particularly on the flatter, windier stages at the Tour, but opened the door for the 29-year-old to pursue a stage win.
"Oliver acts as our comprehensive insurance on the flatter, as well as the more rolling, stages," Lavenu said. "He can be a great leader as well as a great teammate, and he deserves to raise his arms in victory."
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