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Alexander Kristoff’s move from Katusha-Alpecin to a revamped UAE Team Emirates marks a major turning point in his 13-year professional career. Kristoff, 30, claimed his biggest victories in a Katusha jersey, including his 2014 victory at Milano-Sanremo and his 2015 win at the Tour of Flanders. Yet after another winless classics campaign this past spring, rumors circulated that a rift had opened up between Kristoff and Katusha management.
With hints that Katusha was looking to replace him, Kristoff saw the writing on the wall. He told VeloNews that even the best relationships fray when the results are not there.
“I had my best years and I had a good time in Katusha, but when the result doesn’t go your way, they expected more from me,” he said. “And I wanted to do things my way and if they don’t think it’s right, then you start to argue. At the end of the day, during the season you’re not always agreeing with everything. I was starting to look elsewhere.”
Kristoff’s classics campaign was hardly a bust; he finished inside the top-five at both in Milano-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders and won Eschborn-Frankfurt. Yet the results did not clear the air with Katusha, he said. He heard rumors that Marcel Kittel was headed to the team. The German speedster’s presence would likely relegate Kristoff to lead-out duties in bunch sprints. Kristoff was not ready for that role.
When Kristoff put feelers out to other teams, he was disappointed with the lack of interest from the WorldTour peloton.
“In the end, I didn’t have so many offers,” Kristoff said. “Astana was interested for sure, but they didn’t know whether Aru was staying or not so they didn’t have the budget set. Same with UAE actually. But for sure there were other teams. Cannondale was interested but they didn’t have a sponsor yet and I wasn’t willing to wait for a long time.”
Part of the challenge of finding a new team was Kristoff’s requirements. In addition to his salary, Kristoff wanted to bring along teammates Sven Erik Bystrom and Michael Morkov.
After several months of searching, Kristoff reached a deal with UAE Team Emirates, which was investing heavily in its team for 2018. The team agreed to build a sprint squad around Kristoff and hired on Bystrom. Morkov will ride for Quick-Step Floors in 2018.
Kristoff found his winning legs during the second half of 2018. He won the RideLondon and the European championships before nearly beating Peter Sagan at the world championships. Kristoff ultimately finished fourth overall in the UCI world ranking.
Kristoff believes he still has the legs to win a major classic; he simply needs to maintain his form and hope for the right race scenario to play out. Had the 2017 Milano-Sanremo come down to a bunch sprint — rather than a breakaway — Kristoff believes he would have won. And that result would have changed his entire season.
“If I would have won Sanremo my spring classics would have been great,” Kristoff said. “So again, it’s the small margins in this sport. Even if my performance was really good, without the podium results you don’t remember it.”
Yet Kristoff lacked his traditional punch in the sprints this year, which was evident at the Tour de France, where he was often a step behind his rivals. Kristoff has spent more time in the gym this offseason hoping to build power. He will also race all three Middle East races in 2018; in previous seasons he participated in just one or two of the events.
“Normally after a grand tour I get stronger, so I will make my own grand tour in Arabia,” Kristoff said. “I know [Fabian] Cancellara did something similar a few years ago when he was quite strong also after it, so I’ve got a similar plan.”
Kristoff also believes his new supporting cast at UAE Team Emirates will help him return to the Classics podium. At Katusha, Kristoff said he benefitted from the veteran expertise of Luca Paolini (Paolini retired in 2015 after suspension for a cocaine positive). Kristoff believes new teammate Marco Marcato could play a similar veteran role at UAE.
The step forward brings new pressure to succeed, and Kristoff believes he has the motivation and tools to do so.
“I want to prove something. That I’m good enough to win again, to be there in the classics,” he said. “The first goal will be Sanremo. I’ve been on the podium two times there and I hope I can be on the top again. Even if you’re second or third, for sure it’s a good result, but it’s always the winner you remember.”