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Oliver Naesen on Flanders, gardening and growing up in the ‘Boonen generation’

Robyn Davidson
1 Apr 2022

After 4th at Omloop, Naesen speaks to Cyclist ahead of the Tour of Flanders, a race he's come 7th in twice

‘I feel like I'm never the strongest, but on cobbled hills, I can always match myself with the strongest.’ When asked on how best to prepare for the Tour of Flanders, recovery from a heavy crash and abandonment at Dwars door Vlaanderen probably wasn’t on Oliver Naesen's mind.

He’s home from the hospital and nursing painful contusions on his back and shoulders. Naesen is thankful nothing is broken, eyes still set on the upcoming Tour of Flanders this weekend.

It would be the one race he'd like to add to his palmarès.


Photo credit: A.S.O./Alex Broadway

 

The 31-year-old came seventh at Flanders in both 2019 and 2020, citing volume of training as key to a good finish.

‘It's such a long race. Preparation is 90% of what it takes. The number one thing definitely would be training volume, things like intensity are less important since the efforts you need are lots of repeated hills.’

De Ronde is deeply ingrained in the Belgian and it’s not some forced cliché.

Born nearby, Naesen lives on the Ronde course and uses the route as his training ground. From the window, he points out the bridge riders will head over as part of the legendary Flanders parcours which additionally features in other races.

‘Both the Oude Kwaremont and Muur van Geraardsbergen are not that far from here. I like them a lot. My favourite climbs are the ones on cobbles.

‘Positioning is so important. I feel like I'm never the strongest, but on these cobbled hills, I can always match myself with the strongest riders whereas if the climb is asphalt, my mask falls off.’

'The Boonen generation'

Photo credit: Bryn Lennon / Staff via Getty

You might assume that his early links to cycling come naturally from being in such a prime location for riding. However, that’s not the only reason.

‘When I was younger, I started doing judo with some friends and we began skateboarding afterwards. We did that from morning to evening.

‘Then one of us was like, I'm going to be a cyclist, and I knew I had to try that.

‘With cycling, we often call it like a microbe or a virus. The cycling virus. It's highly contagious and a lot of fun.’

Growing up, Naesen witnessed his Flandrien hero Tom Boonen build a legacy by dominating the classics, winning three editions of the Tour of Flanders, four Paris-Roubaix races and five E3 Harelbeke victories.



It’s why he labels himself as one of the ‘Boonen generation’ of cyclists.

‘In Belgium it's safe to say that every rider who got their first licence between around 2005 and 2008, we are the Boonen generation.

‘That’s 100% thanks to him. He's the first rider that gave me goosebumps and really made me want to want to try it out.’

His younger brother, Lawrence, also rides for the World Tour AG2R Citroën Team. There’s no sense of fierce competitiveness or rivalry between the pair – well, not from Oliver’s end anyway.

‘I'm not the most competitive person. You know when you often read about these great riders who are unable to lose a game of Monopoly? I'm not like that at all. That's maybe what I'm missing.’


Photo credit: Bas Czerwinski / Stringer via Getty

Naesen has found a home with his AG2R Citroën Team since 2017, when they were known as AG2R La Mondiale, and will continue with the squad through 2023.

'My best quality might also be my greatest weakness.'

When I asked Naesen to describe one thing about himself that no-one knows, the former Belgian champion thought for a while, before saying, ‘I don't really like to be like, I'm very strong or very smart or very funny. None of those things.

‘I guess if I had to name one sportsman-like quality, it would be that I find myself really tough.

‘I'm not one of those professionals who has won all their races and all the championships and even in the younger ranks too. It's quite the opposite. I actually didn't win anything.

‘It sounds like such a douchebag sentence, but I mean, I think I have done quite well with the talents I have so far. And I think I owe it all to my hard character.’

It’s this character that means Naesen is not out of Flanders contention despite his recent crash.


Photo credit: Nico Vereecken / Pool via Getty

But one person that probably won’t be alongside him is the dominating figure of Wout van Aert.

He described the news that Van Aert is unlikely to participate as ‘saddening’, having known the Jumbo-Visma rider since their U23 days.

‘There’s so much more to him than just the physical, pure, brutal strength. He's a preparation machine, very intelligent in what he does. I think he wakes up in the morning and thinks "what can I do to improve myself compared to yesterday?"’

While preparing for Flanders, Naesen knows that one of his best qualities can also be a disadvantage.

‘My next race is still going to be Flanders on Sunday. My best quality might also be my greatest weakness.

‘I have a hard time resting with injuries or sickness. Which is, from time to time, a stupid thing to do.

‘But I have done some of my best results while recovering from injury, and sometimes these miracles do happen…’

Oliver Naesen on...

...brown shorts

AG2R's brown bibs are iconic in cycling, and polarising.

‘When I came to the team, I was like, ha, if only they could get black bibs.

‘But going through the years, I have grown fond of them. If you look now at all the flashy brands and cycling kits, they all sell them eh? Brown bibs.

‘We were in brown bibs before it was cool. And you will see in the next years brown will still be cool.’

...the 2022 Tour de France

Looking ahead in the 2022 season, the Tour de France looms large. A quota system is applied so half the squad comprises Frenchmen at their home Grand Tour.

Naesen knows it’s not a given to be selected with so many strong riders on the team: ‘It's not a given to be to be honest’.

...that Netflix doc

He is curious about the upcoming Netflix series that will follow the 2022 Tour. Despite a packed cycling lifestyle, he found time to watch F1’s popular (and sometimes controversial) Drive to Survive.

‘I really enjoyed Drive to Survive, and the same people will make the Tour series, so I think it will be very good for the sport. I hope it’s going to be nice to watch.’

...gardening

The life of a professional cyclist can be a hectic one indeed. It’s one that will only get livelier for the Belgian, who is expecting the birth of his first child soon.

So when he isn’t busy competing or training, Naesen finds himself relaxing with nature.

‘This is going to make me sound like a 45-year-old dad. But when I’m not cycling, I’m gardening.

‘There’s nothing that calms me down more or is as rewarding as just mowing the lawn or cutting tree branches and making my own compost.

‘I enjoy watching our bushes and plants flower. I do a tour of the garden every day.’

...food

Fries are Naesen's favourite. ‘Not the homemade ones. The ones from the fritkot, the tiny restaurants almost like trailers. That’s my favourite cheat meal. I would say Orval is my favourite beer too, but I prefer a good glass of wine.’


Oliver Naesen will be racing at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday 3rd April.

He recently featured in the new documentary 'How to Win the Tour of Flanders', available on GCN+, where you can also watch live coverage of the upcoming Tour of Flanders as well as many other races.

Main image: A.S.O./Fabien Boukla

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