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It’s a measure of Alexander Kristoff’s ambition that, after a year where he took 20 wins and marked himself out as one of the strongest riders in the peloton, the Norwegian looks to step things up even further in 2016.
He had a phenomenal run of form, taking 18 victories in the six months between February and June, but is aiming to rejig things in order to reach a key goal in better shape.
“It was a good season. I think all year I was quite good,” Kristoff states matter-of-factly, weighing up 2015 last week at the Katusha team training camp in Calpe, Spain.
“I was winning a lot, but I missed out at the Tour. I wish I had a stage there. I wished I won the worlds, but at the end when I saw the course, the climbs were maybe a little bit too close for me to the finish for it to really be the best course for me.
“I said it already when training at the worlds that I think it was going to be a little bit too much to fight. So, other than the Tour, I don’t think I could have done much better.”
The Tour, though, is something that sticks in his mind. One year earlier he picked up two stages wins there, confirming his arrival at the top of the sport some four months after taking Milan – San Remo.
He got a taste for stages then and returned to the race last July determined to add to that tally. However, despite a route that featured some selective sprint stages that thinned things out – and thus should have suited him – he wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
Kristoff went close to a podium finish early on, netting fourth and fifth on stages five and seven respectively. Towards the end of the race he was third into Valence, and put in one last effort on the Champs Elysees, making a final bid for victory there.
However Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Bryan Coquard (Europcar) were quicker and beat him to the line.
Close, but no cigar.
From the outside, it looked like his storming early season had cost him peak form in July.
Months later, he has thought things out and, with his coach and his team, decided to make some changes. A new plan has been drawn up and while it involves him sacrificing a home race, he believes it’s what he must do.
“I will not go to the Tour of Norway this year in May,” he said. “After the Classics, I will do Frankfurt and, after this, California. So it will be a small change.”
Small, but one he hopes will make a difference.
Right now, though, he doesn’t want to be drawn too much on the Tour. “I’ll think about that after the Classics,” he states, setting his sights on the immediate priorities. First things first.
Single day specialist
Aiming for the sport’s toughest one-day races is a logical move for the 28 year old, who has the required mixture of brawn, race tactics and final kilometre speed to fight with the best. His 2014 Milan – San Remo triumph showed what he could do in such events; his performances last season provided further confirmation.
Kristoff went close to successfully defending his San Remo title in March, placing second to an impressive John Degenkolb in the final sprint. He then took three out of four stages in the Three Days of De Panne and placed third in the final time trial to net the overall classification.
That made him red hot favourite for the Tour of Flanders but, despite all eyes being on him, he answered a surge by Niki Terpsra (Etixx-QuickStep) near the end, held off the frantic chase behind and won the sprint.
Taking Scheldeprijs three days later continued the momentum, and completed perhaps the most remarkable run of results of his career.
“Flanders is definitely the best memory,” he states, reflecting on the season. “Winning a monument is always…I have done it two times now, and both times it was great. It was also great the way I won it. That’s not the way I normally win a race, so it was cool to do it this way.”
Unsurprisingly, he wants to experience those same emotions again. He’s thought of the Classics all winter and while he didn’t feel as strong as he might have hoped in Katusha’s training camp this month, he also felt similarly muted sensations twelve months earlier. As a result, he isn’t panicking.
Bolstered by a stronger team, he believes he’s on course and is exactly where he needs to be.
“First, I focus on San Remo,” he states, talking about his programme. “I think there I can rely on my guys because I think many of our team-mates can follow over the last two climbs and help me in the finish. I hope there we can be good, hopefully we can get the victory. But there are many guys who can win.
“In the last two years I was good in San Remo and I think I can be there again this year. So that is the first goal. After that, I will try to defend in Flanders. There is more man-to-man. It is going to be hard for sure. I will still say I am not the favourite, even if I won last year, but I do hope to be there.”
There’s a third goal in that period, although he concedes it might be a bridge too far. “As for Roubaix…it would be nice to win that one,” he admits, thinking of the Hell of the North.
“But unfortunately I never felt that strong there. I don’t know why I feel better in Flanders, but that is just how it is.”
Kristoff will continue working hard in the run up to those races, knowing that nothing is guaranteed. He wants to be at 100 percent, not least because he’s aware how strong his rivals are.
Asked to name the biggest threats, he mentions Sagan and Cancellara – ‘it is his last year, and I don’t think he’s doing to finish with a bad season,’ he states – and also names Degenkolb, who has since been involved in a bad crash and will miss those races.
But Etixx-QuickStep are, collectively, the biggest threat. He knows it, and he admits it.
“They have Boonen, they have Terpstra, they have a really strong team. For sure they are also there. They have so many guys who will be in the top.”
In 2016 those riders will have another big gun on their side, namely multiple world time trial champion Tony Martin. The German rider indicated in recent weeks that he plans to target the Classics for the first time in his career, and Kristoff is respectful about his prospects.
“He won the cobble stage in the Tour. So I think he can be a danger…that is for sure. Of course, in those races it helps if you have done them before. So that is a little bit against him, but again his team has a great routine in these Classics and he has so many team-mates who have done them 100 times.
“That will help him, and so I think for sure he can be dangerous.”
Mission: Gold in Qatar
If things to go plan, Kristoff will pick up a Classic win (or two), then build up for the Tour and clock up victories there. After that, he’ll miss the Olympics, believing the course does not suit his characteristics, and set all sights on the worlds.
Six years after Thor Hushovd won, he wants to emulate his countryman and do the same.
Asked to decide between the Classics and a rainbow jersey, he’s clear on his preference for the latter. That said, though, Kristoff knows the calendar enables him to give 100 percent for the earlier races, then recharge and refocus for the big end of season contest.
Given his ability to deal with undulating courses, though, would he prefer something a bit tougher than Qatar?
“For sure I can handle a little bit more,” he accepts, thinking perhaps of rivals who don’t have the same resilience as him. Shaking them off before the finish would improve his odds. “But I am also among the fastest, so I think it will not be a bad course for me.
“For sure the worlds is the last goal for me this season. I will try everything to be good there. I think Norway has a quite a good team.
“I hope I will be there, but for sure in a sprint a lot can happen. Many guys can win. Like last year in the Tour, Greipel won almost every sprint. But he didn’t win every sprint – Cavendish won one.”
Those two will be amongst his rivals in Qatar, and have a better track record thus far in the sprints. Still, Kristoff is younger, his momentum is growing, and he’s dreaming big.
“For sure it is possible,” he says, thinking of rainbows. If he gets his form right, it’s hard to disagree.