Paris-Roubaix: Bad luck rues chances for Belgian outsiders

The top favourites for the 115th edition of Paris-Roubaix were undoubtedly eventual winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and quadruple winner Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors). Belgian riders Oliver Naesen (AG2R) and Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) showed during this classics campaign that they were a force to be reckoned with. Still, bad luck rued their chances on Sunday.

Naesen had a great ride in Paris-Roubaix last year, while riding for the IAM Cycling team. "Based on my performance in Paris-Roubaix last year I earned my contract with AG2R. I finished in thirteenth place. Ten riders survived from the long breakaway and behind them I was in a group with Sagan, Cancellara and myself. That was my best race last year," Naesen told Cyclingnews on Saturday.

This year, 26-year-old Oliver Naesen impressed during the Flemish classics by being one of the very few riders who was able to mark the moves from Sagan and Van Avermaet deep into the finale. Before the start of Paris-Roubaix, Naesen stated that he was confident that he was among the five strongest riders of the field.

"Up until now, I had the luxury of being able to keep up with the best. I think I can do the same in Paris-Roubaix. I didn't expect to be as strong as I was, especially last week in Flanders. I was confident that I would be able to follow them," Naesen stated. When asked if he felt like becoming one of Belgium's next cycling stars, after the departure of Tom Boonen, Naesen liked the idea. "There's spots up for sale now and I think I can be there to take it, being a Flemish rider helps of course. I hope so," Naesen told Cyclingnews on Saturday.

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Bad luck didn't turn him into a new Boonen on Sunday. He was part of a big crash in the second pavé sector of the day. He was up for a long chase and little later he punctured. After a long chase he got back in the peloton but shortly after the coupe from Trek-Segafredo and Peter Sagan at 77 kilometres from the finish, he punctured away from the favourites group once again. It seemed as if he was out of contention but suddenly he reappeared in the favourites group and rode with Boonen on the Carrefour de l'Arbre. Then, a mechanical took him out of contention for good. After the finish, Naesen didn't know what to think about his race.

"I crashed, had four punctures and in the end my derailleur broke down. After my crash I had to chase for a very long time and spent a lot of energy but I came back. Then I punctured and came back. I punctured again, came back again. Then I punctured again when the peloton was broken into several groups. I punctured in front and behind. In the end on the Carrefour de l'Arbre, I rode away with Boonen and others. We came back to about half a minute and then my derailleur broke off. I started getting better even though I suffered a lot early on. But now, I'm feeling fresh. I just wasn't able to do something. I rode on three bikes and four sets of wheels," Naesen said.

When asked if he would've been able to win with his legs, he agreed. "I think I can say that. It's annoying. It's catastrophic. Last week was a worse with the crash in the ronde but in Roubaix it's not in your hands. If I wouldn't have had the mechanical in the end I would still have been in the top-10 maybe. That would've been some sort of consolation but now it's laughable," Naesen said.

Next week, Naesen rides the Amstel Gold Race but he wasn't as confident for the Dutch event as for Paris-Roubaix. "I hope so but right now I can't be bothered. In this race I knew I was among the strongest riders. In the Amstel they open a can with fresh riders," Naesen said.

Jens Keukeleire had high hopes of a good result after his second place in Gent-Wevelgem two weeks ago. A stomach bug ruled him out for Flanders but he was ready for the queen of classics. He survived the big selection on the five-star pavé sector of Mons-en-Pévèle, featuring in the favourites group of ten riders which rode to the front of the race little later. On the following pavé sector, he punctured away from the front.

"I'm disappointed. We reached that pavé sector and I hit something really hard and punctured. I received a wheel from the neutral motorbike but that took ages. I get going again and then my rear wheel was flat," Keukeleire told Cyclingnews. "Early on I had a minor crash which was my own fault when I was riding at the side of the road. I landed into some stinging nettle. It's still stinging right now. It was a tough race and probably there weren't a lot of riders who were feeling fresh. I felt good on the cobbles of Mons-en-Pévèle and also when we rode away with a select group of riders. Something nice was possible today. It's too bad."

Still, Keukeleire glanced back with satisfaction on his spring classics season and his Paris-Roubaix.

"I'm pleased with my spring classics season but it would've been nice to have gotten a good result here. It was a fun race though, an elimination race at the back. Straight from the start it was really fast. I was just biding my time until Mons-en-Pévèle where it's usually happening," Keukeleire said before heading to the legendary shower building next to the Roubaix vélodrome. Next up for Keukeleire is Brabantse Pijl, then Amstel Gold Race. 

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