When a rider is asked how they found Paris-Roubaix, the usual response is to wince and construct a sentence that includes the words 'full gas' and 'empty' - they're not meant to say it was no big deal. Oliver Naesen, however, doesn't see what all the fuss is about.
"Everyone says after Roubaix that they're smashed, totally destroyed, but I never had this feeling," the Belgian tells Cyclingnews, now with two editions under his belt - 57th last year after an untimely puncture, and 13th this year.
"After Amstel [Gold Race] and other races I'm really smashed. And Flanders – I prefer it because it's on my home roads but it feels harder. At Roubaix I was 13th and frustrated, but at Flanders I was like 22nd and finished empty. It's strange, but I think Roubaix really suits me."
Naesen, who turned pro with Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise in 2015 before debuting at WorldTour level this season with IAM Cycling, was arguably the breakthrough Belgian rider of the season. After Roubaix and a decent enough spring, he made his Grand Tour debut at the Tour de France and went from strength to strength in the second half of the season, winning the Bretagne Ouest France Classic, finishing second overall behind Niki Terpstra at the Eneco Tour, and second at the Tour de l'Eurometropole after a controversial sprint from Dylan Groenewegen.
"I'm super happy with it," he says of his 2016 season. "I wondered how I would survive the step up to WorldTour races. I thought I was going to improve a little bit, but not like it went. I was a little bit surprised, actually. I knew it was going to be better than the year before but I didn't know it would be that much better."
A top 15 in Paris-Roubaix this early in a career would be taken gladly by most, but Naesen explains that, feeling so strong and comfortable on what is a hellish occasion for most, it was a day of frustration. The front group formed early and, despite a chase group that included Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, circumstances conspired to ensure the race never came back together, costing Naesen what he feels could have been a top-five finish.
"I don't want to say it was lucky but the first ten were in the front because of a crash," he says. "I was in the crash, so didn't make the group. I was the entire race frustrated because I had to be in the chase. I wound up in a group with Cancellara, Terpstra and Sagan, which was actually really nice, but being there and only finishing 13th is a little bit disappointing."
Naesen had two teammates up the road in Heinrich Haussler and Aleksejs Saramotins, but was under orders not to contribute to the chase and risk helping Sagan and Cancellara back to the head of affairs.
"I wanted to chase with Sagan, but they [the directeurs sportifs] were always shouting: 'Don't chase!' I'm sure if I could ride with him we'd have gone to the front. 100 per cent. We were only like 40 seconds away, but it was tactical. I don't think Sagan wanted to kill himself and for me we had two guys at the front – of course you can't chase, we really needed the points. I'm sure if I'd have come back with Sagan then I could have been top five."
A late rise
Naesen arrived at the WorldTour fresh off the conveyor belt of Belgian talent that is the Topsport set-up, but his path here was hardly a conventional one.
"I never thought of pro cycling as a viable option," he says, describing himself as "never any good" in the junior categories.
After dropping out of university in the third year of his five-year course, he got a job "driving a truck and delivering shit", and balanced that with racing at Continental level. "I wasn't the best student," he says with a grin. "I had a little mental crisis and stopped and then started working, then after one year I realised, 'fuck this is not what I want to do with my life'."
Fortunately, his performances on the bike began to improve, and the bigger teams started to take note, with Lotto-Soudal offering a stagiaire stint in 2014. The pro contract with Topsport was soon in the bag, arriving at the relatively ripe age of 24, but a salvation nonetheless.
Naesen now finds himself at AG2R-La Mondiale, meeting Cyclingnews at the team's first off-season camp in the French Alps last week.
Moving to a third pro team in the space of three years was a necessity after IAM Cycling announced they would disband at the end of the 2016 season, but there was no shortage of interest around the 26-year-old after his recent performances. There was the possibility of a return to Lotto Soudal, but the Belgian team couldn't make a firm offer until after the Tour de France.
"AG2R, they were really anxious to get me on the team," he says. "It feels totally different when a team really wants you to join them, rather than when they say 'maybe after the Tour we can talk, blah blah blah'. It's a really big difference.
"When I was looking at the list of WorldTour teams, there aren't many who don't have a big leader for the Classics. AG2R is one of them, and since they were so anxious to have me I signed the day before the Tour. I'm really happy about it."
Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, with whom Naesen trains, tried to persuade the powers that be at BMC Racing to sign him up, though in the end it was another Belgian who'd have his way.
"Stijn Vandebergh told me at the Dauphiné before I signed that he was going to go to AG2R and he said 'I told them to also try to take you'. So it's also a little bit his responsibility."
Naesen and Vandenbergh get to grips with their new bikes at AG2R's first off-season camp
The 6ft 6 Belgian will join Naesen at the helm of a Classics squad that has undergone significant restructuring this transfer window, with Johan Vansummeren and Jesse Sergent both retiring, and Sébastien Turgot and Damien Gaudin not offered contract renewals. Alexis Gougeard, fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year, is a hope for the future, tied down through to 2018.
"There's no one leader," says Naesen. "Me and Stijn are both aggressive riders, I have a little sprint but also have to attack before a sprint. If we get into a final together, we can each try to do our thing and follow the logical thing – if one's ahead the other hangs back and tries and disrupt the chase.
"If we were in QuickStep or BMC or whatever, then if you race for 5th place - which for me would be really good in Flanders and for Stijn also - they'd be very disappointed. At a team like AG2R, if you're 5th in the big classics, or get lots of top 10s, for them that's the objective. I can do it and Stijn can do it."
Naesen exudes a level of confidence that you wouldn't necessarily expect from someone who's only just completed his first season at WorldTour level – only his second as a professional.
"I turned pro at 24 – I've seen a bit more of life than a 19-year-old neo pro. There's not much that frightens me," is his response when this is put to him.
"Of course my confidence has grown – beforehand I was confident but not about doing results. Now I'm sure I can do results in big races."
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