AG2R La Mondiale team leader Oliver Naesen's preparations for this Sunday's Tour of Flanders haven't gone as smoothly as he would have liked. Crashes at both of his last races – the BinckBankTour and Gent-Wevelgem – have shaken, but seemingly not stirred the Belgian, who will attempt to improve upon his seventh place at Flanders last year in what is a home race for him.
He won't start as one of the big favourites – that moniker is widely being attributed to the likes of Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Flanders first-timer Julian Alaphilippe (Elegant-QuickStep) – but Naesen's knowledge of his local roads, his strong Classics pedigree and, perhaps, the support of Grand Tour specialist Romain Bardet, who'll be riding his last race for AG2R, could all come together to net the 30-year-old at least a top-five finish.
Speaking to the press on Friday ahead of this weekend's race, Naesen said: "I know I have a chance. There are many scenarios that can work out well for me, and, actually, the Tour of Flanders is very simple tactically.
"I have to wait until the last time up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg [inside the last 20km]. I'd be satisfied with a top-five finish. I know it's in there," he said, according to Het Laatste Nieuws.
Of his recent crashes, Naesen said: "I've put them behind me, and have no problems on the bike. I can still feel it, though. My knee is very sensitive after that fall in BinckBank. Tumbles like that don't make you better – you always get a knock.
"After the fall at Gent-Wevelgem, only the day was wasted – I lost my good legs," he said, finishing 14th there. "But that's history now."
On Sunday, Naesen will be able to count on the support of his brother Lawrence, Silvan Dillier, Julien Duval, Alexis Gougeard, Stijn Vandenbergh and, he hopes, Bardet, in particular.
"I think he is the man who will be with me the longest on Sunday," he said. "That would be handy. Romain is going to do well. Agreed, he doesn't know the roads. This past week, he has watched the TV images of the last 50 kilometres of the previous editions. And we went to train on the course on Thursday and Friday, which is how he's gained some more knowledge of the route."
Asked whether he thought he was overestimating the role Bardet – a climbing specialist – might be able to play, Naesen was adamant that he wasn't.
"Certainly not. During Thursday's reconnaissance ride, we flew up the Oude Kwaremont at full speed. He was three seconds behind me – on his first-ever time on those cobbles," Naesen said. "That's good, right? On Strava, he immediately ranks among the top 10 of all time.
"He's motivated. After the lockdown, when it became clear that the Tour of Flanders would take place in the autumn, riding here was the first thing he wanted – or the second after the Tour de France – as a way to say good-bye to the team," continued Naesen, with Bardet leaving to join Sunweb for 2021.
"Grand Tour riders are physically stronger than one-day specialists," he said. "When we talk about the top of the pyramid, Romain is right up there as a rider."
Bardet's French compatriot, Alaphilippe, will also be racing Flanders for the first time, and, similarly, much is expected of the road race world champion.
"His rainbow jersey will create space in the peloton, and he has the best team. Or maybe the second strongest because Trek-Segafredo are also very good," Naesen said. "But it's difficult to estimate whether Alaphilippe will play a role in the final."
AG2R La Mondiale for the 2020 Tour of Flanders: Romain Bardet, Silvan Dillier, Julien Duval, Alexis Gougeard, Oliver Naesen, Lawrence Naesen, Stijn Vandenbergh
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