AG2R Citroën placed two riders in the winning move at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, but Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen still found themselves outnumbered and outflanked by Deceuninck-QuickStep, who claimed victory through Kasper Asgreen.
Naesen and Van Avermaet found themselves in a leading group of seven riders after the final climb of the Tiegemberg, but they had to settle for fourth and sixth, respectively, after Asgreen jumped clear with 5km to go.
Although Asgreen had already spent 54km alone at the head of the race, the presence of his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates Zdenek Stybar and Florian Sénéchal helped to disrupt the chase, and the Danish champion won by 32 seconds.
“When Asgreen attacked, I had just done a turn on the front. At a moment like that, it’s impossible to respond yourself. Asgreen immediately got a hundred metres and then you know that the bird has started to fly. Too bad, we should have jumped on the wheel faster there. Oli was a bit surprised there,” Van Avermaet said, according to Het Nieuwsblad.
“It’s a pity that we let it slip through our hands in the end, but I am glad that I was able to follow Wout [van Aert] and Mathieu [van der Poel] for once. That means that there is progress. It is also good that the two of us were there. The result could be slightly better, but I don't think we can complain.”
Van Avermaet and Naesen missed the original split forced by Deceuninck-QuickStep on the Taaienberg but they were able to get back to the front thanks to the chasing of Jumbo-Visma, who sprang into action after Van Aert was delayed by a puncture.
Naesen would go on to pre-empt the anticipated moves of Van Aert and Van der Poel on the Paterberg by slipping up the road in pursuit of Asgreen. The 'Big Two' came across to him after the Oude Kwaremont, along with Van Avermaet and a trio from Deceuninck-QuickStep.
Van Avermaet and Naesen were reluctant to help Van der Poel and Van Aert in their pursuit of Asgreen until after the final two climbs.
“Experience has taught me that if you overplay your hand on the Karnemelkbeekstraat and the Tiegemberg, you can get into difficulty,” Naesen said.
“I looked around and saw all of Asgreen’s teammates. If I had started to cooperate fully, it would have been like boxing above my weight. I immediately said to Wout and Mathieu: ‘Ask me what you want after the Tiegemberg, but I will have to count my matches until then.”
Naesen’s fourth place was AG2R Citroën’s best result in a Classic so far in 2021, but while that constituted progress, he acknowledged that neither he nor Van Avermaet could be counted as favourites for the Tour of Flanders.
“On the run-in, I constantly realized that we were being led to the slaughter like lambs. If you still take fourth and sixth place, there is nothing to complain about,” Naesen said. “Collectively, Greg and I rode a good race, but it is clear that we are not a favourite for the Tour of Flanders.”
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