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ZOTTEGEM, Belgium (VN) — Alexander Kristoff’s first win in Europe this season couldn’t have come at a better time.
Doubts were building about the Katusha star heading into his title defense in Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). After a hot start in the Middle East (with five wins at the tours of Qatar and Oman), Kristoff kept missing the win while racing in Europe. And then he got sick over the weekend, forcing him to skip Gent-Wevelgem.
Will he be ready to defend his Flanders title on Sunday? Kristoff is hoping so after out-kicking two Astana riders to win the opening stage of Three Days of De Panne.
“The win gives me confidence. I was doubting a little bit because I was sick,” Kristoff said. “De Panne is always good for me. I always feel good after racing here. Now I will go hard to try to win again, and hopefully this will set me up for Flanders on Sunday.”
Last year, Kristoff barnstormed through De Panne en route to winning Flanders and GP Scheldeprijs, victories that confirmed his arrival to the elite of the peloton. He won 20 races on the year, and although he fell short of a stage victory at the Tour de France and also finished fourth, just off the podium, at the world championships, his 2015 season was a smashing success.
Coming into 2016, Kristoff is looking fit and motivated for the classics, with second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and sixth at Milano-Sanremo, but he came down with a slight fever and headache. He was not a factor at Harelbeke (53rd), and he skipped Gent as a precaution.
The Norwegian will race to defend his title at De Panne, but all eyes are on De Ronde.
“Cancellara and Sagan are looking really strong. And Sky is also strong,” Kristoff said. “Van Avermaet, he’s also coming back from sickness, just like me. There are many guys who will be good on Sunday, and hopefully I will also be there.”
So will he be with those favorites in the front line up the bergs? Kristoff admitted he’s not as strong as he was last year at this time.
“I did not feel as strong as I did last year, but a win is a win. I was there with two other guys in the end. I felt better than in Harelbeke, and the sickness was affecting me there already,” he said Tuesday. “I was suffering a lot today.”
Astana’s Alexey Lutsenko, who escaped late in stage 5 at Paris-Nice to relegate Kristoff to second there, and Lieuwe Westra couldn’t shake Kristoff. Westra was also pushing hard to drive home the break 36 seconds ahead of a group that included Tony Martin (Etixx – Quick-Step). The Dutchman is now a threat to Kristoff for the overall.
Etixx missed out on the day’s main break, and could not bring it back. Kristoff said he expects the team to be there Sunday.
“They are a really strong team, and they have a lot of good guys, but it looks like at the moment, they are lacking a one clear leader,” Kristoff said. “Sometimes it’s better to have one guy to go for, but for sure, they will be there for Ronde and Roubaix.”
Kristoff is hoping he will be, too.
Reaction to Demoitié
In the wake of the death of Antoine Demoitié in Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, Kristoff also said organizers should build detours and bypasses into race courses on the narrow roads of Flanders to provide for a safer race for riders.
“That was really sad news,” Kristoff said. “It was dangerous today, with cars and motorbikes passing us. We race on these small Belgian roads, and it’s hard to pass. There are many crosswinds, and it’s dangerous. Maybe it’s possible that they have shortcuts so the cars and motorbikes can pass ahead of us, and avoid some of these dangers.”