By the end, Oliver Naesen had to laugh, otherwise it might have been just too hard to take. After a rapid rise up the Classics hierarchy, the Belgian had high hopes for the 2018 spring, but they all went up in the Flemish dust as he crashed to the ground time and time again.
He was on the deck at E3-Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the Tour of Flanders, while punctures blunted his chances at Paris-Roubaix.
"It was frustrating, because the crashes I was in were always big crashes with 20 or more guys, I was always in the middle and never the first guy to crash, so it felt like an injustice," Naesen tells Cyclingnews.
"When I was on the left they crashed on the left, and when I was on the right they crashed on the right. It was that kind of year."
One of the most disappointing aspects was the feeling he didn't do justice to the black, red, and yellow jersey on his back, having made himself champion of Belgium the previous year.
"You're riding up climbs with everyone on the side of the road, I'm the jersey, and they must all be thinking 'how shit is this guy'. It's my responsibility to go to the finish – I'm the leader, I'm Belgian champion, and these are my races – but I wasn't enjoying it."
Naesen's results sheet perhaps belies his disappointment. He fought back to finish fourth at E3 and, after placing sixth at Gent-Wevelgem, managed 11th at Flanders and 12th at Roubaix. All respectable results, but they only left him with a sense of 'what if'.
"I spent the whole time chasing. It was good for the confidence to come back but that's the one bullet you have, and you've already shot it half-way through the race. In Flanders and Roubaix in the end I'm still in the front group, but there's no sprint anymore, no chance of attacking, just survival mode to the finish and let's get this over with.
"I have a double feeling about 2018. Performance-wise, I should be more or less happy, because again it was a bit better than the year before, but results-wise it didn't bring what I wanted, with all those crashes. It was a year of delay – it wasn't quite a lost year, because I was always there, but I was not really there. It's a lame excuse but I just needed a little bit more luck."
'Greg and Sagan are the best but I hope to be the third guy'
Naesen's new year wish list is simple: an end to that misfortune. All the other ingredients, he feels, are in place.
As well as making improvements on a purely physical level, his AG2R La Mondiale team took another step forward in the Classics in 2018. After Naesen and Stijn Vandenbergh joined in 2017, the team signed Silvan Diller from BMC and Tony Gallopin from Lotto Soudal for 2018 and began to assert themselves in a way they never have before.
"AG2R have always been a climbing team, but now the WorldTour points system means Classics are important. Vincent said to me when I joined, 'You and Stijn should make sure we get some points and we look ok, we're still not a Classics team but make us look ok.' That year, 2017, went really well, then next year we got Silvan, Tony, became more classics oriented, and hopefully we can continue this way," Naesen says.
"Tony is maybe the second strongest but doesn't really want to do the Classics anymore. He'll only do Flanders this year. I told him he should do them all, but he doesn't want to. Then there's Stijn and Silvan. Silvan has to be out front from far away, setting one super high pace all day, that's his thing. Then Stijn is always there and is the guy you can ask to attack with 30km to go. Gougeard is a breakaway man. It's getting more difficult for him as he's more known now - a bit like Thomas De Gendt - but for his rider profile that's the ideal way to serve me. With those five names we can really go far in the Classics. We couldn't show it this year with all the crashes, but 100 per cent we have a team that can win Classics."
Naesen sees Quick-Step dictating the tactical narrative of the Classics once again in 2019. The Belgian team won almost every one-day race on Belgian soil last spring, with Niki Terpstra winning E3-Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders and Yves Lampaert winning Dwars door Vlaanderen.
"They are impressive but none of them are super human. Their strength lies in their team spirit, all have the top classics leader level, and they're on start line with a knife between the teeth ready to kill themselves for each other. Their strength lies more in collective than the individual. I wouldn't be afraid to go to the finish line with either one of them, or even two."
As for whether Terpstra can be as much of a force in the colours of Pro Continental outfit Direct Energie, Naesen is succinct: "100 per cent not."
Looking beyond the Quick-Step behemoth, Naesen sees two individuals as a cut above, though he is eager to establish himself as 'best of the rest.'
"You have Greg [Van Avermaet] and [Peter] Sagan of course, then there's always [Philippe] Gilbert, Lampaert, who made a big step this year, [Sep] Vanmarcke, who's always there, and then maybe a [Sonny] Colbrelli or [Michael] Matthews, depending from race to race. The two biggest ones are Greg and Sagan, but I hope to be the third guy."
Naesen says he has two or three days where he feels "unbelievably strong, almost limitless". With two victories at the late-season Bretagne Classic on his palmarès, he is confident a major spring Classic win is in him – he simply needs lady luck go a little easier on him.
"If I just don't crash, anything is possible."
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