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He’s taken a glut of victories in the past week and a half but, although he admits to some mental fatigue, Alexander Kristoff has one more target before taking a long-awaited break: that of Paris-Roubaix.
The Norwegian rider has a best-ever finish of ninth in 2013 and did not reach the velodrome last year. He was also a non-finisher in 2010 and 2011, and was 57th in 2012.
However his strong run of current form has given him optimism about how Sunday could go for him, and he made clear that he will be in an ambitious frame of mind at the race start in Compiegne.
“Of course I dream of winning. Who doesn’t?,” he said at the press conference held approximately an hour after he won Scheldeprijs on Wednesday.
“If I get podium I will be very happy. But if I win I will be more happy. So we will try, of course, to win the race. The whole team is on a good form but I know it will be very difficult.”
Kristoff’s impressive racking up of eleven wins thus far began in the Tour of Qatar when he took stages two, four and five. He also secured the points classification.
He then clocked up one stage each in the Tour of Oman and Paris-Nice, and went close to more success when he took second in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, second in Milan-San Remo and fourth in the E3 Harelbeke.
In the past week he stepped it up again, netting the first three stages of the Three Days of De Panne plus the overall victory. Victory in the Tour of Flanders followed on Sunday and then Scheldeprijs on Wednesday.
All in all, the 11 wins racked up put him far ahead of all of his competitors and make him the most successful rider – in terms of first places – thus far this year.
Asked why he and the other team members are clicking so well, he attributed it mainly to gradual development and also greater understanding and cooperation.
“The Classic group trained a little bit different maybe in training camps, but it should not make that big of a difference,” he said. “But we raced a lot together, we are a good unit. We have a lot of fun and I think that is important also. So the group is working better and better.
“We also had this group for quite many years, actually. Then we were a really young squad and now we are getting older. Then you normally also get stronger and more experienced, and that shows.”
Still, he admits that he is also surprised to have taken such a stream of victories. “I don’t know [why]…It is a good question. I am a little bit surprised how this run is going.
“I think the team do a great job to deliver me into a good position and to keep me out of trouble, also keep me out of the wind, so I have quite fresh legs at the end. So that is also the main difference this year compered to last year.
“Last year I was not so much weaker than this year but I had less support in the sprint. Now I get better support in the sprint so then I get also a lot more victories.”
It was pointed out to him that other teams have already been doing that for their leaders for quite some time; his answer was essentially that whatever they had in the past was irrelevant. What mattered in his case was how things had changed for him.
“I did not have this so much before,” he underlined. “So maybe I could have won more, I don’t know. Now the team works very well and we are more a good unit at the end and also during the race. It saves me energy. It is very important for the end to save some energy.”
That’s something his stepfather and coach Stein Orn spoke about last year to Bicycling.
“Katusha is really working on a sprint train for him,” he stated then. “That’s going to be interesting because, until now, he has had to spend all of his energy just getting in position. With a good train he can put that energy just into the sprint.”
“I reset for every race. I can keep on winning”
Logical question: is his run of results self-perpetuating, in terms of relieving pressure, making him accustomed to winning and giving him increased confidence?
When this is put to him by CyclingTips, he accepts that there may be an element of truth to this.
“I feel still like the same guy as before. I work hard all the time. I train like I should train,” he said. “[But] of course I am actually not so stressed in the race. If I have pressure or not, I don’t really care so much. I try to do my best. Maybe this is the fact that [when] I reset for the next race, I can keep on winning.”
His use of the word reset is relevant; he already said before Scheldeprijs that he regards each race as a new start, another chance to try to prove himself. He said it was important not to live on past victories, but to keep striving for more.
“If I was just living on De Panne, that I won this, maybe I would be happy and not win in Flanders,” he explained on Wednesday.
“So when I start a new race it is a little bit of a reset and I start from scratch again. I think maybe it is a little bit mental also, but you also need to have the legs to make results and to keep following with the best guys.”
Kristoff freely admits that he has been on a roll, and that luck has been an important part of that. He said that Scheldeprijs illustrated this point perfectly.
“With two kilometres to go we were way too far back and we used a lot of energy to come back to the front. We just made it before this big crash so we were quite lucky, actually, that we made it to the front.
“I heard a big crash behind…if we were two seconds later, for sure we would be in this crash.
“Sometimes you need some luck and for the moment it seems like everything is going my way. I have to enjoy it when it lasts because maybe on Sunday, like last year, [it will change].
“I had really back luck puncturing in Arenberg and two crashes after, so you never know what is going to happen. Last year I was really disappointed after Roubaix. Right now Roubaix can go whichever way it wants because I will still be happy with my Classic period.”
Given a chunk of the field crashed inside the final kilometres in Scheldeprijs, it wasn’t surprising that Kristoff was asked about the theme of danger. Several of those who will be his big rivals on Sunday elected to miss the race, both due to a desire to be fully recovered from Flanders and also to avoid any mishaps.
Did he not see a danger in riding Scheldeprijs in advance of Roubaix?
“Sure it is risky but also De Panne is risky for Flanders. But for me it is good to race as you get in the race rhythm and you fight for positions,” he reasoned. “You also do like a really hard training.
“If I really want to go hard I must actually do racing because I can’t push myself that hard in training.
“For me, there was never a question not to do De Panne because I did it every year before Flanders and I [then] felt good in Flanders. I also did this race every year so for me I think it is also important to be focussed.
“When you are focussed in these races then normally you can also avoid these crashes. When you are sleeping and not paying attention, it is most dangerous, actually.”
Kristoff on Wiggins: “For sure I think he is where he should be”
Kristoff readily admits that he always felt better in Flanders than in Roubaix in the past. He said that he doesn’t understand why that was the case, but that he hopes that things go well this year.
Winning in the famed Roubaix velodrome will depend on several factors, not least avoiding crashes and mechanical mishaps. It will also require strong tactics plus the correctly-judged marking of his main rivals.
He accepts that last year’s winner Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) and Britain’s Bradley Wiggins (Sky) are two big dangers.
The former showed his strength on Sunday when he spared off the winning attack and then reached the finish with Kristoff, losing out in the sprint. The latter had a quieter race, but believes that he can be up there on Sunday.
Kristoff agrees. “I don’t think he lacks the strength,” he said, when asked about Wiggins’ decision to sit up at the end of Scheldeprijs and to just roll in. “So I think it was just safety reasons only. For sure I think he is where he should be and he can be a danger, actually.
“He showed last year that he can do this race and he trained even more specific for doing it. So maybe he is also a man you must keep in mind.”
However things go, Kristoff said that he will take a rest after Sunday’s clash. He said he is feeling mentally tired and wants to step back from racing for a period. After that, though, he wants to return and build up for the double targets of Tour de France and the world championships.
Although his Katusha team-mate Joaquim Rodriguez is aiming for yellow in what is a Tour that could suit him very well, Kristoff hopes that he can try for the green jersey. Second last year to Peter Sagan, he will chase points early on, then assess the situation a little later and decide then whether or not he should keep battling.
Between the maillot vert and the rainbow jersey, though, there is no contest. Faced with the idea of a choice, he immediately opts for the latter. “I would choose the rainbow,” he said.
“You have it one year, so it is more nice.
“And I like also this colour.”
“When I turned pro it was really hard for me. I was not even close”
Further ahead, Kristoff said that he believes he can keep improving. He initially found pro cycling tough but has experienced years of gradual improvement. This has boosted his confidence in the training he does with his coach Orn.
“I did not expect it,” he said. “When I turned pro it was really hard for me. I was not even close. I think maybe my first top ten result as a pro was in this race, actually. So it was difficult.
“And when you are alone, they say ‘okay, you can sprint,’ but if you don’t have support how are you going to beat the best guys with the support? It was very hard times and difficult.
“But I never gave up. I just kept on fighting and I improved a little bit year by year. Now I am at the top, actually. One of the best guys in the world. It is a dream coming true. Actually if you see my results it is quite steady build-up from year to year a little bit better. Not that big jump.”
So what does the future hold? “I think it is still possible to get better,” he suggests. “Like I seen in intervals in stuff…the young guys I am training with can still keep following me. So for sure you can get stronger. That is no doubt.
“If I go in the long climbs I get dropped. Maybe if I get stronger I can survive a little bit longer.”
While he is undoubtedly the rider in form at present, Kristoff has a point. He does have weak spots in his armoury. If he manages to improve in these areas, it is logical that more results should follow. That must raise concern with his rivals.
“I think is it possible to get better, but at the moment I am quite good enough to win a lot of races,” he said, speaking with the confidence of someone who has been doing precisely that.
“I am happy like this.”
He’ll be even happier if things go his way on the dusty, dirty roads of Paris-Roubaix.