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by Shane Stokes
April 21, 2015
Photography by Kristof Ramon, Shane Stokes, Cor Vos
Some reacted like he had just burst forth onto the scene with his three stages plus the overall in the Three Days of De Panne, the Tour of Flanders and Scheldeprijs, but in truth Alexander Kristoff has been a pot slowly coming to the boil for several seasons.
Now 27 years old and with an impressive eleven victories thus far this year, the Norwegian is someone who has made steady progress since turning pro with the BMC Racing Team in 2010. While his time at that squad was relatively quiet, he did show early promise with results such as third in the 2010 Philadelphia International Championship and victory in the 2011 national road race championships ahead of Vegard Laengen plus Thor Hushovd.
As his stepfather and coach Stein Orn told CyclingTips, Kristoff has been working hard and making small gains year on year. The rider too said likewise during his press conferences after Flanders and Scheldeprijs, and the fruits of that work started to be seen when he lined out with Katusha in 2012.
Kristoff was 24 years of age at the start of the year and landed that first pro win when he took a stage – plus the points classification – in the Three Days of De Panne. He also did likewise in the Tour of Denmark, finishing fourth overall there, but his biggest result was a strong sprint from the 23 man chase group at the Olympic Games.
He had been in the day’s early break and while they were caught by those chasing behind, he had enough left to take the bronze medal behind Rigoberto Uran (Colombia) and Alexander Vinokourov (Kazakhstan).
Since then his progress has continued; 2013 brought seven wins, amongst them stages in the Tour of Norway and Tour de Suisse, as well as fourth in the Tour of Flanders.
His haul in 2014 was double that, and saw him notch up two stage victories in the Tour de France as well as finishing second in the points classification.
Despite that, though, there is still a substantial number of people following the sport who don’t know very much about Kristoff. CyclingTips spoke to some of those who do, and gained some insights into his character and background.
Orn came into Kristoff’s life when the latter was six years of age. He was in a relationship with Kristoff’s mother and went on to become the boy’s stepfather.
Now a cardiologist, Orn’s background was steeped in cycling. His father was a national team cyclist and met his mother while cycling. His sister competed at the Olympics.
He said that his own interest in the sport waivered in the 1990s due to the various scandals that affected cycling.
Instead of aiming Kristoff towards a big pro career, Orn said that the early training he encouraged his stepson to do was geared more towards having optimal development for a healthy life. Being healthy rather than a star athlete was the initial goal.
Still, there were signs that the youngster had some good mental and physical qualities.
“When he decides that he wants to do something, he really does it,” Orn explained. “I remember when he was a small kid he could keep on and on…for example, he was quite fond of playing football. He would stay out hours and hours. I would be the goalkeeper and he would be shooting goals all the time. He was never, never satisfied.
“I would say, ‘now it is time to go in, we have to actually go to bed.’ He would say, ‘just ten more goals, ten more goals.’ He was the kind of guy who wanted to [keep working]. And the winner’s instinct has always been there.”
The second example was what he said was the athleticism shown by Kristoff while as a six or seven year old child. Orn states that he could ski for thirty or forty kilometres and, despite that distance, still be able to sprint at the end.
That same blend of endurance and finishing speed has been a big factor in many of his pro victories, not least his 2014 Milan – San Remo title and his recent Tour of Flanders success.
As a teenager Kristoff decided to put aside his dabbling in football and other sports. He and Orn stepped up the amount of training he did on the bike, and some encouraging results followed.
Back then Edvald Boasson Hagen was an early competitor on a different team and both clubs battled regularly. This rivalry raised the standard of the Norwegian scene, and ultimately helped both become successful professionals.
According to Orn, both riders were, and are, quite different in their makeup.
“Alexander has the endurance capacity and the sprint and it has always been faster than Edvald,” he said, “but Edvald had the capacity of going faster in hills and in the time trial.”
“When they entered the professional world, that kind of capacity that Edvald has was more appreciated than the sort of capacity that Alexander has, as you need to maintain and develop it [the latter] for a very long time in order to actually get to a level where you can achieve results as a professional.”
Orn states that Krisoff’s endurance capacity is based on his high ability to burn fats as fuel via his slow twitch fibres.
“With slow twitch fibres, of course you can’t go that fast on him. So the focus has been for these 15 years to develop those fibres of Alexander to go at a faster speed every year.
“We managed to lift those fibres to endure capacities of approaching 44 kilometres per hour on average. Now it is much more difficult for the other opposing rider to destroy him as with professional cycling, when you go at fast speeds, you need to use glycogen. Glycogen stores are available for just one and a half hours.
“If you can spare then and save them for the hard days, for the sprints and the attacking periods, you will have a big capacity.”
He gives an example of this physiology in action, saying that Kristoff’s performance in the 2012 Olympic Games illustrates it well. He was part of the day’s early break and while he was dropped on the second-last ascent of Box Hill, he had enough left in the tank to latch onto the chase group that eventually reeled in those out front.
This put Kristoff in a position to go all out in the final kilometres and to pick up the bronze medal.
Looking back, Orn believes that moment outlined his potential, yet he was still not pinpointed as a major future threat by some of his rivals. He said that he doesn’t mind that this was the case.
“It was very good for us as to move beneath the radar is important in cycling,” he states. “You have less attention.
“The improvement has been very gradual. If you look at Procycling Stats, you can see the progression is almost linear. There is no point that has been extremely different from the other year.
“I find it extremely strange that people are starting to say ‘where is this guy coming from?’ People saying that really are not into cycling, because if you really understand cycling you should have seen him already in 2011. In 2012 it was obvious that it was happening. But that is just the way it is.”
As Orn notes, Kristoff’s career progression can be easily seen on websites such as Procycling Stats. But what about him as a person? CyclingTips spoke to several people about the Norwegian and common themes emerged from each of them.
Norwegian journalist Anders Christiansen has been writing about Kristoff for quite some time. “I think personally he is pretty much the same as he was in the past,” he told CyclingTips. “He is very down to earth. He is a family guy. He says it is not an option whatsoever to move to Monaco or those places. He wants to stay back in Stavanger with his family, his wife and his kid, and the other kid who is coming.”
Orn has a similar view. “He is a really kind guy. He is very caring about his family. He always wants to go home to his wife and kid. He is extremely focussed. But when he relaxes he really relaxes.
“He does go to parties but that is many years ago…now he is really settled to his family.”
Many big sprinters are extroverts, but the picture Orn – and Christiansen – paint is of an individual who likes the quiet life when away from races.
“Sometimes he prefers being in his room playing Playstation rather than being social,” explained Orn. “But at the same time he cares a lot about his fans. He does spend time with his them. He tries to be available at the times when he is available. When he is not available he is not available. He swaps between those two. That is very important for him.
“And that is part of his personality and being extremely focussed – when he spends time, he uses the time in the most efficient way. He doesn’t do it all together. He either does one or another.”
Torsten Schmidt is a directeur sportif at Kristoff’s Katusha team and, like its press officer Philippe Maertens, describes him as a very straightforward individual.
“He is a very nice person to work with. He is not complicated, he knows exactly what he needs to do, what he likes to do, and he knows his goals and how to work for these goals with his coach,” said Schmidt, speaking one day before Paris-Roubaix. “It is a very nice relationship.
Maertens echoes this: “He is very…let’s say simple. Low to the ground. I remember after the last season I told him, ‘you should look a bit more happy, more extroverted when you are on the podium, that you like winning.’ Because he was always timid,” he said.
“He never makes noise like…he should be a guy like Cipollini. Okay, maybe that is exaggerated, but he misses a bit that point of a sprinter. All sprinters have something like Kittel, everybody looks at him.
“Alexander doesn’t need it, he likes to be in the shadow a little bit. That said, in the last two weeks he smiling more often. As you saw just now [at the Paris-Roubaix presentation – ed.] he was doing autographs. He likes to stop for the fans. That makes him a nice person.
“I cannot speak for let’s say mechanics or soigneurs, but from my job, when I ask him for something, he does it.”
A team mechanic for Katusha spoke of his own working relationship with Kristoff. “He’s very straightforward,” he told CyclingTips. “He rides whatever bike he is given, he is the least fussy of all the riders. He’s good to deal with.”
Alexander Kristoff (r) and Katusha team-mate Luca Paolini at the start of the 2015 Scheldeprijs in Antwerp
When Kristoff had his run of success recently, some people on social media started making pointed comments. They pointed to his three stage victories and overall classification win in the Three Days of De Panne, his Flanders triumph and his Scheledeprijs success and said they considered it suspicious.
Orn says he has seen such comments. Spend time talking to him, though, and he does appears passionate about anti-doping. When asked about Kristoff’s ongoing contract deliberations he named several teams that he considered no go zones due to concerns he had in this area.
He insisted that Kristoff has never seen anything suspicious with Katusha and said that it and Team Sky – another squad he believes is working in the right way – are the two prime candidates for the rider’s next contract.
Norwegian journalist Anders Christiansen has been writing about Kristoff for quite some time and said that the rider has not held back from commenting on the issue.
“In Norway he is known for being quite outspoken about doping,” he said. “He is not afraid to speak about it. In the world of cycling today, I would say it is important that someone doesn’t fear speaking about this subject. And he doesn’t, he really doesn’t.
“He also spoke out against a former Norwegian race walker who had doped being allowed to participate in the London Olympic [after his ban], even though he had qualified.
“So he has quite a good reputation in that way in Norway.”
During his interview with CyclingTips, Orn spoke for at least ten minutes on this area. He said that his guidance of Kristoff was based in part on developing the body’s own abilities to handle endurance work in the optimal way, to recover from big workloads and to keep progressing at the pace the body can handle.
His suggestion was that once this is done correctly, it brings with it big performance advantages of the ethical kind.
“Our whole training system is based upon a hormonal adaptation that is a natural situation,” he explained. “You have to train the hormonal system in order to adapt and to supply the energy demand.
“You actually train your hormonal system the same way as you train your muscles. In doing so you actually increase your ability to secrete hormones because you are dependent upon that if you want to release energy at the proper moment in time.
“If you wait until after puberty [to develop this system – ed.] you are actually lost.”
Orn suggests that if riders have not been training in the correct way and have lost this natural balance, it is difficult to correct the situation. “The same problem is if people have been doping, it is impossible to turn them around because then they have actually destroyed your own hormonal system.
“When you do artificial substitution, you actually suppress your own production and then you are off track. Even small doses will destroy a rider.”
He insists that Kristoff is on the level and that his success shows that the situation has improved considerably.
“We need to be conscious, we need to have good tests and we need to have the availability. I think the young generation now coming up that it is proof that it is possible. Certainly with Alexander, this is for me a big victory.
“Of course, I can see on international forums – I am a doctor, he is the son of a doctor, that is suspicious. But to me he is the proof that it is possible. That is a very important that you get through because that gives hope to all the people trying to do this the right way.”
Orn, Maertens and Schmidt are unanimous on one matter; Kristoff’s ability to deal with expectation and stress is a big asset to him.
“He doesn’t feel any pressure at all. Really,” stated Maertens. “Even when before Flanders he was one of the big favourites. He says, ‘I have pressure for every race. Not more between a stage in De Panne and Paris-Roubaix. It doesn’t matter.’ It is surprising.”
Schmidt said one day prior to Paris-Roubaix that the rider, who was being watched by all, was relaxed.
“I think after all these victories, there is more honour to ride and start these races,” he explained.
“Pressure is more to the others who need to win something. But if you are a bike rider and you like to win or you are able to win big races, you also need and know how to handle pressure.”
Final word to Orn, who has seen him growing up and knows him better than perhaps anyone.
“With regard to stressful situations, he is extremely calm,” he said. “But when he turns on his fighting spirit, he really sort of explodes. What’s typical is you can see almost sleepy before a really, really big race, then he just wakes up and he really glows towards the end.”
He said that this is a natural characteristic rather than a learned one; it’s not the case that Kristoff uses meditation to deliberately try to relax. Instead, he believes it is innate.
“It is a really efficient way of focussing energy,” he continued. “He doesn’t waste energy. Never, ever. He always has an extreme capacity of focussing on what he has to do.
“I think that is one of his personality characteristics that is really important for his performance on the bike.”
If so, it will be an attribute that will prove crucial now that Kristoff has fully emerged and shown what he can do.
Click on the audio files above to hear much more from some of those interviewed about Kristoff’s character and background.