Oliver Naesen will start his eighth year with AG2R next season, the team that will go by the name Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale after a name change and several sponsorship changes next year. At the team presentation of this WorldTour team, the 33-year-old rider took extensive time to answer questions from the cycling journalists, including IDLProCycling.com!
Naesen is one of the most experienced riders in the Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale roster, which has strengthened significantly for the coming year. It was announced in late September that the Belgian had extended his contract with Vincent Lavenu's team for two more seasons. This means he is now committed to the team until the end of 2025. Reportedly, teams like Intermarché-Circus-Wanty and Lotto-Dstny were also interested in the classics specialist, but he chose a longer commitment to his current team.
"I had told my manager Yannick Prévost that I felt good where I was. But that maybe the time was right to look elsewhere. I added that I wanted to sign before the start of the Tour de France no matter what," Naesen explained regarding the minor transfer saga. "The interest from Intermarché and Lotto came quite late. The Tour was already underway. Besides, I do appreciate stability. Financially, I took a step back. In sports, they don't work based on seniority."
Naesen doesn't rule out team leader's role in the spring classics
It could be, considering his experience, that Naesen might take on the role of mentor in 2024, though he certainly still has his own ambitions. "A function as an extension of the management, specifically towards the younger riders, is a role that appeals to me. It's kind of a captain's role. Then I'm really a kind of fixture," he jokingly says.
"The calendars will have to take shape first. If, for example, Sam Bennett rides Paris-Roubaix or Milan-San Remo, he is a real leader that we will probably push forward. The Flemish classics are super important to me. But as I understand it, those races have more priority in the team in 2025 than in 2024.'
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In recent years, we have indeed seen Naesen more often in the role of luxury helper or super domestique, especially during the (big) tours. Next season, he will likely frequently perform this function, he admits. 'I suspect that my helper role in the stage races will take precedence. That's actually been going on for a few years. In the Tour de France, for example, I'm often better than in the spring. Thus, I am more valuable then," he says realistically, followed by words of slight disappointment. "These things evolve too. In 2019, I could have been the new Tom Boonen or would have preferred to be in the shoes of Wout van Aert. However, it's not that simple; that's sport."
However, the older brother of Lawrence Naesen isn't thrown off by this and still has confidence in his own abilities. "In last year's Tour, I felt better than ever. Of course, you also have to look for the light where it shines. I'm not going to bang on the table like I used to, but pursuing a good result is obviously why you get out of bed. I can't do more than my best, so it's just a matter of waiting and seeing what happens."
Can we then expect Naesen mainly in the classics with heavily inflated ambition? We can actually conclude that yes we can, although he also keeps things a bit uncertain. "I'm not even sure if I'm going to ride the full classic campaign, although I think I will. The classics team hasn't been strengthened, so I'd be surprised if there really needs to be a choice made. We probably won't have one main leader."
"If you look at past results, it will be me. If you look towards the future, it will probably be one of the young guys," he continues. "The team has a lot of confidence in those youngsters. Especially Pierre Gautherat is very well-regarded. Maybe I'll act as his lieutenant and show him the ropes in Flanders. He is brimming with ambition. Whether that will translate into results is, of course, the question. I don't dare to make any further statements about that.'"
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2024 will be Naesen's first season in a long time without Van Avermaet
In previous seasons, things didn't really go smoothly for Naesen in his beloved spring classics - and also in races outside of them - for which he has an explanation. "This year I have a huge number of race days in my legs. 83 is not nothing. When you look at all the riders who have performed well, you see that they often only reach half that number. On average, such guys are at sixty percent of what I have ridden."
In this context, he admits that a bit more rest during the season would be helpful. "I always execute the winter stages perfectly, but because of that large number of race days, I never have time for small interim stages during the season. I have been asking for this for a few years, but due to, for example, illnesses and injuries of others, I usually get deployed everywhere. Of course, this means that you can't really maintain your level in the way it should be. In an ideal world, I would prepare for the classics optimally, ride them, and then go to the Tour via Dauphiné. That would be perfect, but the chances of that happening are slim."
Finally, Naesen has been riding for years with bosom and training friend Greg Van Avermaet in the team. The latter recently bid farewell to the cycling peloton. 'Ollie' suspects it will be a bit strange at first to ride without 'Dn Greg'. 'I think it's going to make quite a difference that Greg is no longer with the team. In the peloton, he was very respected. You always felt that when you rode with him. That part will be missing, and that's a shame. For me personally, of course, not much changes. Greg was someone with whom I could communicate very easily in the race. It always went very naturally and easily. Racing, especially the classics, is incredibly hectic. It's not easy to talk to each other. Not everyone can do that. With Greg, it always went well. We will really miss that bit of leadership."