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Van Avermaet and Naesen: Our partnership can be an advantage at Opening Weekend

AG2R Citroen Team riders with Belgian Oliver Naesen of AG2R Citroen Team and Belgian Greg Van Avermaet of AG2R Citroen Team pictured in action during the reconnaissance of the track ahead of the 76th edition of the oneday cycling race Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Thursday 25 February 2021 in Oudenaarde BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM Photo by DIRK WAEMBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images
Van Avermaet, Naesen, and their AG2R Citroën teammates training on the cobbles ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen are anticipating the launch of their new AG2R Citroën Classics partnership at the upcoming Opening Weekend, starting with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday.

Naesen heads into the weekend hoping to make a breakthrough at a pair of races where he's never finished better than seventh, while Van Avermaet – twice an Omloop winner – is seeking to put a tough pair of Classics campaigns with CCC behind him.

Van Avermaet also has the 2017 editions of Paris-Roubaix, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem to his name, while Naesen has attained an unwanted reputation as a Classics nearly-man over the years, with podiums at E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and Milan-San Remo on his palmarès.

Speaking to Het Nieuwsblad, the pair talked about their records at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, with Naesen saying he always looks forward to the race despite his unwanted record there.

"Omloop is usually a thankless race for me," he said. "When Valgren won [in 2018 – Ed.] I wasn't on the front in the entire final, but we got caught by the peloton. It's the same story in Kuurne.

"I get caught every year between five kilometres and 200 metres from the line. I haven't raced to a prize at Opening Weekend, but every year I look forward to it with great morale."

Van Avermaet, who won Omloop in 2016 and 2017 but has a career-best of seventh at Kuurne, said that he might have won in 2019, but was forced to chase on several fronts without team help.

"Omloop Het Nieuwsblad suits me," he said. "I'm fast early in the season, and the course – certainly the with finish in Gent – also helps. The race breaks open quickly.

"At CCC, I sometimes had a problem that nobody was there with me in the final. When Štybar won, I was the best man in the race, but I had to go with Wellens twice. At AG2R it's different. With Oli you shouldn't even ask the question whether there will be anyone else in the final."

Both men, who have been training partners for several years, said that their new partnership at AG2R could mean that they're at an advantage during the races. Both men have a fast finish, so they can work a one-two punch, while they also have an advantage in that they're not so strong that riders might refuse to help them in a group, Van Avermaet said.

"When you won as much as I did in 2017, in 2018 they're on your wheel as soon as you move. Now it's different; I'm still among the better riders but not among the best anymore. That could be an advantage – there are going to be riders who think: 'Van Avermaet might be beatable at the finish'."

"It can be an advantage," Naesen added. "We want to catch a nice fish this weekend but we're not the top favourite."

That role would usually be reserved for the star pairing of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), but the Dutchman is only riding Kuurne, while the Belgian is skipping Opening Weekend altogether.

But still, they'll be present throughout the rest of Classics season, playing the part of top favourites after their show at Flanders last year. Van Avermaet said that he was disappointed not to see them on the start line, while Naesen has confidence in their partnership being able to  come out on top if they head into a big race final together.

"When Wout and Mathieu announced they would not be there, I thought it was a shame," Van Avermaet said. "I want them at the start, even if it reduces my chances. The best riders have to ride the big races, and they are the best. It's not easy but when I win a race, I want to be able to beat them, too."

"Wout and Mathieu are better than me," added Naesen. "It would be silly to say the opposite. My palmarés is like a standard July for them. At the same time, I can say that I can compete with them specifically during the Classics period. Individually Greg and I are less strong but together in a final? If we keep pushing enough, they will fold anyway."

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