Karsten Kroon might not be a marquee name when it comes classics time, but the veteran Dutchman is one of the most reliable performers in April, with fourth at Flanders in 2007 and second at Amstel Gold Race in 2009.
Now 34, Kroon is back from a horrific crash in last year’s Flèche Wallonne to give the classics one more run. Above all, he’d love to win Amstel Gold Race, where he’s considered an expert on the twisting, climbing route through Holland’s Limburg region.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Kroon last week at BMC’s training camp in Spain to talk Amstel, his crash and why he think Taylor Phinney is bound for stardom. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. Karsten, this is your second year on BMC, but it seems like the squad has really beefed up its classics team. What’s your take on the new-look BMC team?
A. If you look at the team on paper, it’s one of the best teams in the world. We have a lot of experience, and even a young guy like Greg Van Avermaet, he’s a very experienced guy in the classics. We’ve had a perfect preparation so far this season, so it looks like the whole team is ready. I am really looking forward to the coming races.
Q. Guys like you live for the classics, talk about the mood of the team and your excitement builds as you get closer to the first big races of the season.
A. For the classics, we are now eight guys training here, for hours and hours and hours, we’ve been riding together, getting to know each other. Of course we talk about the big races and what we expect. In a race like Flanders, for instance, it’s a big advantage if you have a few strong riders together, if you form like a bloc. I hope it’s going to be like that and we can win one of the big races.
Q. Do you see this group with the same potential that the classics team had when you rode at CSC/Saxo Bank?
A. We have really talented riders and everybody is extremely motivated. I am really looking to what’s coming. We have Ballan, Hincapie, Burghardt, Van Avermaet, Wyss, Schar, myself, Phinney – maybe we don’t have a big leader like Boonen or Cancellara, but we have a very solid group with many cards to play.
Q. What potential do you see in Phinney? And do you think it’s healthy for a young rider to have so much pressure on his shoulders so soon?
A. Why not? In the end, sooner or later, he’s going to get the pressure. He’s mentally very strong, I think he can handle that pressure. In the end, if he sees it as a negative thing, I think he should see it as a challenge. That’s how I see cycling. He’s up for a huge challenge, I think he has the physical talent and the mental talent to be one of the really huge ones in the future.
Q. Does Phinney remind you of any other pros?
A. He reminds me a bit of Fabian Cancellara. Fabian is also a guy who has a huge engine. I don’t know Taylor that well, but he also seems like the kind of guy, if he has something in his mind and he wants to achieve something, then the competition better watch out. I think we all agree he’s one of the most gifted athletes in cycling, but he’s still really young. It’s only a matter of time until he’s going to blossom, maybe already this year.
Q. You had a bad crash last year at Flèche — tell us what happened.
A. It was on the descent, a slight corner to the right, I was on the outside, someone crashed on the inside and I was 70kph and I crashed with my head on the guardrail. My helmet was broken. They say without my helmet, I would have been dead. I think it was after 120km into the race. I blacked out for a few seconds, but my memory came back. I couldn’t see with my right eye. There was a lot of blood, I was panicking because I thought I lost my eye. The blood was coming out of my nose because it was broken in a few places, there was so much blood. After a few seconds, the sight of my eye came back, that was a relief. It was kind of traumatic.
Q. That sounds traumatic indeed. How long before you came back?
A. I was back at Tour de Suisse, maybe six or seven weeks later. That was a fast recovery. I suffered through the Tour de Suisse, then I went to the Tour. I was not in good condition, in fact, I hadn’t been 100 percent for the rest of the season after that crash.
Q. Are you fully recovered now?
A. I had surgery on my face in November to take out some titanium plates. My whole right side of my face was pushed in about 1cm. They had to pull it back out and put titanium plates in my face, they took out the plates in November. That was the most brutal crash I ever had. I didn’t want to retire like that.
Q. What about your personal goals? How do you come into the 2011 season?
A. I’m 34 now, I know my body really well, I know what I can and cannot do. I know where my talents are. At my age, you just have to profit from your talents, and mine lay in the hard, technical races, like Flanders, Amstel Gold Race, those are going to be the first major goals of the year.
Q. You said earlier that if you win Amstel Gold this year, you will retire on the spot. Would you really walk away if you win on the Cauberg?
A. No, I was just kind of joking. But that would be a nice moment to retire. If you look at my colleague, Moorenhout, he retired last year and he had one of the best rides of his career. Then he stopped, when he was in the attack. That would be a great way to finish your career, not lying in a hospital.
Q. What do you think of many of your ex-teammates now going to Leopard Trek?
A. I think it’s a great project, every new team is good for cycling. I do have to say that I felt a bit sorry for Bjarne (Riis), because the four years I spent with him were great. I really enjoyed those four years with CSC and Saxo. And knowing how close he was to Frank and Andy and also to Fabian, I can imagine it’s been hard on Bjarne. It’s all part of business, there’s a moment to say goodbye, then everyone goes their own way. I felt a bit sorry for Bjarne at the time, but then he made a good move to sign Contador but now it turns out that it was not such a good move. Of course, it’s none of his doing.
Q. Do you believe Riis will be able to pull together the team despite the Contador uncertainty?
A. In the end, to have a really good team, you need really good riders, but that’s the talent of Bjarne is to bring good riders together and form unity. I am convinced that he will do that again. Maybe Ritchie Porte will be the next big winner, I don’t know.