Oliver Naesen has hit back at social media critics after being shocked to find himself on the receiving end of a barrage of negative comments over his performances so far at the Classics.
The former Belgian champion is part of a new-look AG2R Citroën unit, co-led by Greg Van Avermaet. The pair placed fourth and sixth, respectively, at E3 Saxo Bank Classic last Friday but then spent much of Gent-Wevelgem chasing behind the successful early break.
“We have received a lot of criticism, but I didn't think we were that bad at all," Naesen said ahead of Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen, where both finished in the main bunch and Greg Van Avermaet rode a particularly active race.
"At E3 we were fourth and sixth. Then you are not the worst rider in the world, although that's what you will read online."
The criticism seems to have stemmed from E3, where Naesen anticipated with an early move before being joined by Van Avermaet, who had Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) for company. After Van Aert was dropped on the Tiegemberg, they emerged in the final selection with the Deceuninck-QuickStep trio of Kasper Asgreen, Florian Sénéchal, and Zdenek Stybar.
When Asgreen - who'd already gone solo earlier in the race - attacked with 5km to go, he was never seen again.
"Greg was criticized for not working with Wout and Mathieu while I was riding in front of them. I find that incomprehensible," Naesen said.
"After that we went full throttle with Mathieu, but Wout was out the back, and of course he is the darling of Flanders, so if you dare to do something like that, it's very naughty, huh? There was criticism because we do not respond to Asgreen in the final. That was my responsibility, I know that too, but if you are on the limit, you can't go any faster. The best man simply won."
After charges of the pair shirking workload resurfaced at Gent-Wevelgem, Naesen suggested he and Van Avermaet were damned if they did and damned if they didn't.
"Apparently that's how it works now. Either you drive full gas without thinking too much, as we did, and then you have illiterate people online calling you stupid. Or you use your wits, but then you have slobs on the sofa calling you lazy."
Naesen picked up on the perceived favouritism surrounding Van Aert and added that it also extended to Van der Poel. The pair have emerged as the strongest individual Classics riders, with many putting the old cyclo-cross rivals in a bracket with Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-QuickStep as a so-called 'big three'.
“I don't really care about the criticism itself, but everyone is such a fan of Wout and Mathieu that whatever you do, except for presenting the race on a silver plate, is wrong.
"It is justified that Wout and Mathieu are considered holy, but if I were a racing fan, I would see things much more positively. It's not that only two or three good guys participate and the rest are bad. No, there are two or three who are super good and at a level that we have not seen in a decade. But it's not that the rest are worthless. Now it seems as if we suddenly no longer have a right to exist."
Naesen concluded that it was best not to take the matter too seriously, albeit in a pointed way that suggested he's not quite over it yet.
Asked if he was angry with the social media critics, he said, "You can't be mad at a donkey for being a donkey, can you."
Dwars door Vlaanderen
Van Avermaet was far less forthcoming and far more diplomatic when asked about the same topic, issuing a gentle 'no comment'.
He went on to put in an aggressive display at Dwars door Vlaanderen, where no one could have accused him of not taking responsibility. He was the main forcer in the chase group behind solo leader and eventual winner Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers). Although he created a selection on the Knoketeberg, his subsequent efforts on the Vossenhol and Holstraat were ultimately futile, as the collaboration in the group waned.
His group was caught in the final kilometre and he placed seventh, with Naesen 19th in the same group.
After placing seventh in Waregem - with Naesen 19th on the same time after the main bunch came back - Van Avermaet himself had complaints to make.
“It seemed as if no one wanted to close the gap to Van Baarle. There was hardly any cooperation, as if no one was ahead of us," he said.
"I constantly had the feeling that I was in the first group but that was not the case. It's strange and especially a shame, especially since the peloton fell on us in the final kilometer."
Van Avermaet nevertheless took heart from the feeling in his legs ahead of the Tour of Flanders on Sunday. While a number of high-profile riders - including Van der Poel and Alaphilippe - struggled, Van Avermaet took well to his favoured warm conditions.
“I think the heat blocked a lot of riders. For me it was just the other way around. I had a good day, the others didn't," he said
“It is certainly not bad, but Sunday is a different game. I'm not going to draw too many conclusions. Unfortunately, it won't be 25 degrees either."
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