Naesen's Flanders hopes hang in the balance after champagne-inflicted illness

The war on germs is very much a part of modern cycling and Oliver Naesen, like many of his peers, takes extensive measures to ward off the threat illness. Yet, as he acknowledged, when you’re in the form of your life, pushing your body every other day, your immune system can rest on a knife edge. So, now, do the Belgian's hopes for the Tour of Flanders.

Despite all precautions, Naesen could never have imagined something so innocuous as the champagne sprayed during a podium ceremony might spoil his important rendezvous of the whole year.

Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday should have been a celebratory occasion for the AG2R La Mondiale rider, with his second podium finish of the spring confirming him as one of the favourites for De Ronde. However, doused in cold bubbly by the winner Alexander Kristoff, he came down with a respiratory infection the next day and started a course of antibiotics after Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.

“Since November, I’m always walking around with his small alcohol hand gel thingy. I don’t go out without something to cover my neck. When I shake hands, I’m always thinking ‘don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face’. I have literally done everything not to get sick,” Naesen told Cyclingnews after a training ride on Friday.

“The only moment I was really cold was on the podium at Gent-Wevelgem, so I can only say I think it’s from that.”

Naesen felt under the weather on Monday and Tuesday, but still lined up for Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Despite finishing in the main group, 20 seconds or so behind the winning five-man group, he was far below his best.

“I felt horrible. On the climbs, when it’s an anaerobic effort, I felt normal, but then when you need to start breathing again… Usually that’s the moment when you have to react to guys attacking on the top, and I was just panting.”

It was decided he should start taking antibiotics post-haste, with the course set to finish next Tuesday. De Ronde is the big one for the Flanders native, but there’s also Paris-Roubaix to think about the following Sunday.

“I took the first antibiotic straight after the race, because every day you wait is like one day late to get healthy. At the moment, it stays more or less the same. It’s not really getting that much better, but it’s not getting worse, so that’s something,” he said.

“I didn’t ride the day after Dwars, which is the first time since the first week of February – the travel day to the Tour of Oman – that I haven’t ridden. Today I just did two hours, as planned. In training there’s no problem, but in training you never go as deep as you do in a race, especially Flanders.”

As such, when asked if he’s feeling pessimistic or optimistic about Flanders, Naesen says: “None of the above”. He knows the form is still there; he’ll just have to blindly hope the airways will clear over the next 48 hours.

“I know my legs are good, my shape is good. I just have to wait and see on Sunday morning. If I wake up healthy, then I’m going to be just same guy as last week. If I’m still sick, I’m going to be a little bit of a lesser version of myself. That’s what it is. It’s as simple as that.

“It’s annoying, for sure it’s annoying. Since November I’ve been training purely for this period of the year. So far so good, and then you get sick right before the big one. It’s annoying.”

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Patrick Fletcher
Deputy Editor

Deputy Editor. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2022 he has been Deputy Editor, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.