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Alexander Kristoff won Milano-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders in Katusha’s red colors — and has brought the team the most wins this year — but their relationship appears frayed with the Tour de France nearing.
The Tour starts July 1 in Düsseldorf, Germany and features nine flat stages.
The Swiss-registered squad is leaving home Kristoff’s reliable lead-out man Dane Michael Morkov and fellow Norwegian Sven Erik Bystrom. Like Kristoff, Morkov is out of a contract at the end of 2017.
They are both linked to team Astana. Katusha, with its German backers Canyon bicycles and Alpecin shampoo, wants German sprinter Marcel Kittel from Quick-Step Floors.
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“For Alex, it’s about being focused on the races,” Kristoff’s coach and step-father Stein Orn told Procycling.no.
“He is professional, he notes that the choice is made and must now work with the given conditions. It is the speculated reason behind the choice we cannot take into account.”
The conditions seemed perfect when then 29-year-old Kristoff joined Katusha from BMC Racing in 2012. He had just spent two relatively quiet years at BMC and did not have his contract renewed.
Katusha signed Kristoff and experienced some golden years, with Kristoff winning sprints and Joaquim Rodríguez climbing away to other victories.
Kristoff earned his sprinter tag with wins in various stage races, including the Tour of Oman and the Tour de Suisse. And then he scored the big one, a Milano-Sanremo victory.
Kristoff could stay in contention longer than other sprinters. He showed that robustness and lasting power in the 2015 Tour of Flanders, which marked his second monument win in two years.
News of a two-year contract renewal though 2017 followed that win.
“It is unbelievable how the team was going the last months,” Kristoff said at the time. “They all worked so hard for me. The teammates trust me and I trust them.”
Norway’s VG reported that Kristoff would earn around 4.5 million euros during 2016 and 2017, which equals about $2.5 million annually.
Kristoff followed through with wins in the GP Ouest France-Plouay, Eschborn-Frankfurt, and stage victories in Qatar, Oman, and Norway. He said at the start of this year he wanted to get back to his 2015 levels.
Though Kristoff finished fourth in Milano-Sanremo and fifth in Flanders this spring and recorded six wins, something changed between Kristoff and Katusha. He said the team thought he was too heavy.
“They think there’s two to three kilos that I should lose,” he told Norwegian television. He said it was “weird” and added, “I’m not heavier than other years.
“There is a tense atmosphere in the team, but I do not understand why they are angry with me because I have a lot of good results for them.”
The atmosphere could worsen given that Katusha is leaving Kristoff to the Tour sprints without his main lieutenant Morkov.
“The withdrawal is taken by the team and it is done at the senior level,” Orn said. “Michael has done a great job guiding Alexander and has been the architect behind [his wins] and they work well together. Therefore, we take this with some surprise.”
Katusha named its nine-man Tour lineup Wednesday: Tony Martin (GER), Alexander Kristoff (NOR), Marco Haller (AUT), Reto Hollenstein (SUI), Robert Kiserlovski (CRO), Maurits Lammertink (NED), Tiago Machado (POR), Nils Politt (GER), and Rick Zabel (GER).