After what has, so far, been a personally disappointing 2021 campaign, Oliver Naesen kicks off four days of racing at the Arctic Race of Norway looking to reset and refocus on the final major goals of his season.
The AG2R Citroën leader has yet to grace the podium of a race so far this year, placing fourth at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic in March and, more recently, enduring a Tour de France derailed by illness.
Speaking to Cyclingnews before the start of the Arctic Race in Tromsø, Naesen said that he feels like he has possibly spent too much time training this year but noted that training more and racing fewer days is an approach that brings success in the modern peloton.
"I hoped to have a better season but that's how it went, unfortunately," he said. "I don't really know what it is. I think I overtrained a bit.
"Since the COVID-19 [break] last year, the level has been higher for sure. I don't know where that comes from. It could be that there's more room for training, more room for altitude and that sort of preparation. Probably that can be the reason. Riders are racing less and training more, I think. It's what the better ones do.
"I always like to do a lot of race days. I find it more enjoyable. But it doesn't feel like it's the best approach anymore."
Naesen's teammate and long-time training partner Greg Van Avermaet has been among the other riders to comment on the perceived increased level in the peloton in recent weeks. The Belgian veteran scored a podium at the Tour of Flanders but otherwise hasn't enjoyed the best campaign either. Nonetheless, Naesen said that he has enjoyed racing alongside the former Olympic champion this year.
"It's been nice. I like him a lot and we have trained together all the time before," he said. "The Spring Classics were really good to do with him and we did quite a good job. Then the Tour de France was something else because we were both a little bit 'in the box' for three weeks, so that was less nice. In general, it's good to have big personalities and characters like him around the team."
Both men still have another chance at a big Classics win, with the rescheduled Paris-Roubaix on October 3 the big remaining goal. Ahead of that, the pair will team up again at the Benelux Tour [formerly the BinckBank Tour], where Naesen is hoping to score a result – for the build-up to Roubaix but also to show he's back on form ahead of a home World Championships in Flanders.
"[Roubaix] is what I'm hoping for, and also for the Benelux Tour [formerly BinckBank/Eneco Tour -ed.] in three weeks," he said. "Of course, it's been two weeks [since racing] now and I've done one week without the bike because I was sick at the end of the Tour. It felt really nice to get that rest. Now I just need one good week of training out here.
"I really hope to race the Worlds. To be in Belgium for a World Championships, the spots are really 'expensive' I think and I'm not sure to be selected yet. Everything starts with that, obviously, but if I'm there it would be a huge goal to be there.
"I need to find the form. If I can be at my normal level, then I'm pretty sure to be there and that starts with riding decent here and doing the Benelux Tour. Races like that should help me get there."
For now, though, there are four days of racing in the far north of Norway to contend with. It's a hilly race, with a tough hilltop finish on day three. Naesen doesn't expect to be in overall contention on his first race back but hopes he can show something after recent difficulties.
"Actually, I don't know how I am," he said. "I wish I could say that I'm going for a win or something. I finished the Tour sick and then one week off the bike. That's not something I usually do.
"I start with some question marks in my head, but it doesn't really matter that much on this level. It should be a nice race – not too hard – and I hope to do something nice in these four days."
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