Oliver Naesen sandwiched by Kasper Asgreen and Mathieu van der Poel

‘Flanders is a coffee filter – the highest quality gets through, the rest stays behind’

Oliver Naesen may not win Flanders on Sunday, but he will likely take home the Best Analogy of the Weekend award.

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“I have a small problem,” says Oliver Naesen over the phone. “Some electricians were working here this morning and during my last call and I lost all my internet.”

Luckily for the Ag2r Citroën rider, he doesn’t have to worry about firing up cycling streaming services to catch this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders as he will have a front row seat by way of racing in it. And even if he wasn’t, the wall-to-wall coverage of the race in his homeland makes it almost impossible to avoid.

“There’s so much at stake,” Naesen says of how this race differs to all of the others for Belgian riders. “Everybody sees what you do here, the entire country.

“We’re 11 million people [in Belgium] and I think 10 and a half million will watch. You know, not counting the toddlers.”

Even though teams and riders are congregating en masse in Gent for De Ronde, the Ag2r Citroën rider is still sitting at home, only a short commute away from the roads that will be raced this weekend. No need for hotels. Born and raised in the heart of cycling country, he could likely ride every metre of De Ronde’s 272.5 km blindfolded. At least, if they weren’t so steep and cobbled.

Pulling into Gent train station, the first thing you see out of the window is a gargantuan pile of bikes parked up outside. More bikes than your mind could previously conceive might exist. Further out away from the centre, people’s driveways have cars possessing rear window stickers of Pieter Serry. OK, maybe that was just Pieter Serry’s mum’s car in Pieter Serry’s mum’s driveway. But it could also just be a random Belgian guy with a specific penchant for one of the only Quick-Step riders without a professional victory.

Anyway, back to Naesen. Whilst he registered consecutive seventh-place finishes in the last two editions, he would be the first to acknowledge that a new generation has come in and is doing its best to sweep out the more veteran riders such as himself and Greg Van Avermaet, who now hang on for dear life as the young guns have at it up ahead.

Naesen says back in 2018, or 2019, there were at least a dozen riders who could harbour dreams of winning Flanders. Now, there are around three or five. The oversized talent of Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar, and a healthy Wout van Aert leave little room for the rest. Does the way these talents dominate the talk of possible contenders alleviate the pressure from the rest of the peloton? Could it potentially help a rider of Naesen’s ability sneak their way to victory?

“Does it help? I don’t know. I mean, I would prefer to have their legs,” is his assessment.

The other day we spoke to Johan Museeuw about the pressure of these races. More specifically, the pressure heaped on Belgian riders by their home country. The Lion of Flanders suggested Remco Evenepoel should live in the UK, Spain or Italy, that it would be easier for him there.

Naesen thinks cycling media has lost its nuance. And in the case of Remco Evenepoel, he is either ‘the best’ or ‘shit’. There is no in between.

“A few years ago when it was more me and Greg [Van Avermaet] talked about in the newspapers, it was always positive, it actually kind of motivated me,” Naesen says. “It actually convinced me from the outside, ‘hey, I’m doing pretty well. I might stand a chance’.

“Whereas, if you’re not going as well as they are, because now today everybody gets compared to those two [Van der Poel and Van Aert], you can look like an idiot, if you get compared to them. There’s some sort of negativity around it. It’s not as motivating as it was a few years ago.”

Oliver Naesen drives the bunch at the 2019 Ronde.

Despite Pogačar saying he isn’t one of the favourites, after a strong but non-Pogačar-like performance at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Naesen says the Slovenian is the third rider alongside Van der Poel and Van Aert for the rest to fear. However, Pogačar’s lack of experience at this race could cost him. Positioning is so important on the narrow, cobbled climbs. If up ahead one of his rivals takes off and the UAE Team Emirates rider finds himself further back than he would like, it’s not a case of just turning on the afterburners and making the catch with all that traffic in the way.

“Today,” Naesen begins, explaining how this new generation races, “if at 100 km to go Wout and Mathieu, or [Christophe] Laporte, or any of these new young guns attack … if you’re not there, you’re not gonna be there, that’s the difference. There are no warning shots anymore. They’re just gone. You get shot and you’re dead for the day.”

For Naesen, the difference between Flanders and Roubaix couldn’t be more stark. After Roubaix he’ll often go for dinner with friends, have a nice evening to celebrate surviving the cobbles. After Flanders, however, that’s not possible. The three steps back onto the team bus are difficult enough. “You just feel empty,” he says, “and you’re sick to your stomach.”

So, what if a magic genie appeared and could offer him a choice between victory at Flanders, Roubaix or, say, a Tour de France stage?

“Well genie, what I would first wish for is two wishes,” Naesen says with a smile. “But if that’s not an option I would say Flanders.

“It’s where I’ve grown up. I mean I’m calling you now 18 km from the Muur van Geraardsbergen, 30 km from the Kwaremont. This is my home. Roubaix is nice but the crowds at the side of the road are not the same as Flanders. It’s like a music festival you’re riding through for 270 km. It’s unbelievable.

“You can look at it as sort of a coffee filter,” Naesen says of the racing at Flanders. “All the the highest quality gets through and the rest stays behind.”

Whether or not Naesen makes it into the proverbial mug, he will have what is effectively his entire neighborhood lining the route. You don’t get the sense that’s something the local lad would trade away for any number of victories.

Oliver Naesen stars in the ‘How To Win The Tour Of Flanders’ documentary, currently available to stream on GCN+.

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