Interview: Oliver Naesen, A Star Is Born

By David Hunter

“Turning pro wasn’t a goal when I was younger, simply because it was so unrealistic. Before my trainee period with Lotto (summer 2014), I was 99% sure I was going nowhere in cycling, 1% you never know. A good amateur, that’s what I thought I was and nothing could be done about it.”

BettiniPhoto©2016

BettiniPhoto©2016

These words will fill every “good” amateur with hope. Incredibly, they are the words of Oliver Naesen, one of the best riders of 2016. It makes his rise to the top even more impressive, considering he has transformed from a good amateur to world tour winner in just two years. If he can do that in such a short period of time, just imagine what he could do next!

“In the younger categories, I was never great. I loved cycling since I started in 2006 but never got big results until 2013. Nevertheless, I always had fun and enjoyed everything about racing my bike. It all changed at the end of 2013. I started winning a lot of races, even a pro kermesse and still combined it all with a full time job. Then I started to think, maybe there is a place for me as a pro cyclist. 

My trainer pushed me to go all-in next winter. All of my work holidays went to racing. Every day from 1/11/’13 until 21/7/’14 were the same. I woke up at 5am, to go to work as a delivery driver, got back home 5pm to start training, I ate and went to bed. I got so much better that year. As season 2014 started and progressed, I realised I deserved to turn pro (even at ‘already’ 23) because I felt I was the best amateur in Belgium and due to working full time, couldn’t possibly have already achieved my full potential. At that time, all the doubts gave me the will to prove myself.”

All of this hard work was rewarded with a stagiaire deal with Lotto Belisol, in the summer of 2014.

“They were very honest with me from the beginning how it was going to be. Lotto soigneur Marc Van Gysegem, a friend of mine, pushed Lotto to give me a shot as stagiaire on their team because he was convinced I could add some power to the team. For them it was unusual to take a stagiaire from outside their youth pyramid (Davo juniors, Lotto u23). But luckily for me, they gave me a shot. 

In June, Kurt Van De Wouwer called me to ask if I was up for it, which I obviously was. But in July, Walter Planckaert offered me a 2 year deal with Topsport. At this point I contacted Lotto and they were very open and honest with me. Even though I didn’t do one race for them yet, they were ‘normally’ only going to give one of the 3 trainees (Tiesj Benoot, Xandro Meurisse and me) a pro contract. And they told me it was going to be Tiesj. Which for me was normal because he is 4 years younger and deserved every penny they were going to give him. So I signed with Topsport before doing a race with Lotto.

Then my trainee period started and almost every race I competed in, we won. I loved riding with those guys and they also liked me. It clicked perfectly but that’s cycling. The management afterwards told me they were really bummed that I already signed elsewhere but that’s how it is. No hard feelings at all.”

After just one season with Topsport, Oli decided to change to IAM Cycling, moving to the World Tour at the age of 25. He started the season with some low-key goals.

“The goal was simply to step it up as I did the years before. Something I was happy with was my consistency with Topsport, I wanted to stay as consistent but simply a level higher.”

Safe to say, he certainly did that. Oli’s season started well with an impressive ride in the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix.

“In Flanders, I planned to stay with the favourites as long as I could and that’s what I did. I was totally dead when I finished and I didn’t do anything stupid so I couldn’t do more. It would have been smart to anticipate like Dimitri Claeys did, but no regrets.

In Roubaix I was not dead at all. A big group went away due to a crash and I was behind it. A chase group formed with Sagan, Cancellara, Terpstra, some others and me. In this group I could not chase because we had 2 guys in the front but I felt really strong until the finish. I felt I was better than the 13th place I got.”

Younger riders usually find it hard to be competitive in the longer races. Why not Oli?

“I train more than the average pro, and I think this is the reason I never have any problems with distance. Also, I eat like a maniac the 2 days before.”

Having a good training group means a lot to a rider. Oli certainly has some quality training partners.

“We have a strong training group with Greg Van Avermaet, Preben Van Hecke, Gijs Van Hoecke and my brother(Lawrence) who also turns pro next year. We start our rides at 9.30 and meet each other. Then we go into the Flemish hills and smash ourselves for as long as we planned (min. 2h, max. 6h). Sometimes I hit the gym afterwards.”

IAM pulled a little surprise by selecting Oli for the Tour de France. Teams can be reluctant to expose a 2nd year pro to the hardest race in the calendar. They took a brave decision and it certainly paid off.

“Since everybody told me to expect the worst, I did and actually… it was OK for me. Of course it’s the hardest race I have ever done but it’s a mental thing. If you expect the worst, it will be okay. If you expect it to be easy, it’s gonna be hell!

Doing the Tour was the best thing I could have done and I’m very grateful that IAM took me there as a 2nd year pro.

After the tour, it seemed to me that over half the bunch was cooked, and I was going into my best shape ever. A bit strange but awesome none the less.”

Having great “Tour” legs certainly helped in the second half of the season, starting with the big win in Plouay.

“We went with 50km to go, with 4 others, in a good moment. Our 15 guy group was about to be caught by another same size group,so I knew there would be chaos. 

We all rode full gas and I had one of those days in which I didn’t get tired. When we started the last 15km lap, with a little over 1 minute, I was almost sure we would sprint for the win. And long time before that, I knew that if we made it, I would win. It was just one of those days about which it is all about.

The last kilometre…

“I looked back often to estimate our lead, and knowing it was false flat downhill to the finish, that there would be some chaos in the bunch, due to the short climb. I knew it would be really hard to get a lot closer to us since we were riding well above 60kph. I was pulling the most during our attack and in the last K I started playing it smart. Alberto(Bettiol) was probably scared to be taken back by the bunch, or he knew already I was going to win, but he kept riding until 300m to go, where I started sprinting.”

After a decent Canadian campaign, it was time for the Eneco Tour. A race well suited to Oliver’s skills.

“Before the race I hoped to do a good GC or try to win a stage. With a strong ITT and TTT I knew it was possible with everyone being really close, before the last day which was in my training grounds. Tactically I raced really good BUT if I wanted to win the stage, I should not have pulled that much. Afterwards I’m not sure what would have happened if I played it smarter. I think Boasson Hagen would’ve won anyways since he’s just a great rider and has proven so much more than me and in GC I could not have finished higher, so I’m pretty happy with how it went.”

Oli has received criticism from some areas this season. Mainly due to his attacking style and his will to work hard.

“Some people tell me I do too much work sometimes during races, but this I don’t regret. I have never won a race after which there were arguments about who was the strongest. This is just my way of racing. I don’t mind losing against someone stronger.”

The amazing form resulted in the call to represent Belgium in the World Championships. Not bad for a 2nd year pro!

“This was the hardest race ever for me. I was on 100% from the moment we made echelons, until the local laps. There I realised that I had to pull in order to keep group 2, with all those sprinters, at distance. When we had 2 minutes, I was too cooked to attack but I could still keep pulling at that speed for a long time, so I think for our team it was best for me to keep riding. All of my explosivity was gone. The heat was hell.”

Those that watched the race will remember the enormous pull from Oliver. It seemed that he was leading the peloton in all of the local laps. He eventually dropped off the front, just a few kilometres away from the finish. What a shift!

“I was super proud to be selected to go to the worlds. It’s one of those races I would stay at home for, as a kid, and now I was in it. It’s still surreal for me. Actually, the entire season is still a bit surreal.”

With all his success in 2016, I wondered if Oli had changed.

“Only my level as an athlete has changed during this season. For the rest, I think and hope that I’m still the same guy I’ve always been. I should ask some people around me, maybe I’ve missed something. To be honest, I don’t think I have progressed more during this season than during last season or even the one before. I believe I’m making more or less the same step the last 3 or 4 years. I think that this step seems so much bigger because it has brought me so much TV time and gave me some big results.”

Motivation is a huge part of cycling. These guys have to go through so much pain, I asked Oli what motivates him.

“The love of the bike, the pride of being able to compete with the best of the best sometimes, the feeling of being in shape and strong, watching races on TV and getting chills, everyone around me backing me, …”

Pro cycling is all about learning. The best riders are always looking to improve and learn from their mistakes. What did Oli learn about himself in 2016?

“Nothing big that I’m aware of right now. The only big thing I can think of is that I shouldn’t be afraid to aim high. Before, I would never dare to openly say what result I wished to get because maybe I was scared to be disappointed. I’ve surely become a lot more confident.”

Despite all the high points, 2016 has been a tragic year in cycling, with a lot of riders experiencing terrible lows.

“There were some horrible accidents this year that I will remember for the rest of my life…

First of all there was Daan Myngheer who passed away due to a heart failure at only 25, I didn’t know him personally but heard he was a great guy.

Then there was Antoine Demoitie, he crashed in my group during Gent-Wevelgem and after the race I heard he didn’t survive this crash. I still think about him a lot. He was very friendly and I always enjoyed talking to him. He was also a very strong guy with a great future in cycling.

In the Tour Of Belgium, Stig Broeckx, crashed with dramatic consequences. He’s still recovering from his accident and nobody knows if he will ever be the same again. I like him a lot, nobody carries more joy in life than him I think.

Those were the very very low points of 2016 which cast a shadow over all the rest that happened this year. I think about these guys a lot.”

With 2017 just around the corner, another move beckons. With the end of the IAM squad, Oli is off to join AG2R. In just his 3rd season as a pro, he will move into a team leadership role. I have no doubts he will handle the extra pressure with ease.

“I’m not sure if it’s confidence but I’m just a relaxed person on and off the bike. Probably it’s more my ‘it is what it is’ attitude than my confidence that made me this way but my mind is always at ease.”

Oliver Naesen is an outstanding cyclist and an all round good guy. If he makes the same progress as in previous years, we will be seeing a lot of him in 2017.

David Hunter

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