GENT, Belgium (VN) — Winning a sprint is never easy, but Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) made it look that way when he snatched a four-up sprint to claim the opening stage of the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde on Tuesday. And a day later, he muscled his way out of a larger bunch to win stage 2.
The 27-year-old Norwegian is oozing confidence as he rides toward a possible date with destiny at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) this weekend. Without Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick-Step) or Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), many are tipping Kristoff as the man to fill the void.
“The Ronde is the big objective this year,” Kristoff said. “I’ve been close the past two years. I hope this year I can reach the podium, and maybe more. That is my goal. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”
Close in the Ronde means that a rider has the legs to go the distance and play the moves. Being close is no guarantee of victory, however, especially in the brutal conditions and distance of Flanders. He was fourth in 2013, leading across the main pack at 1:39, behind Cancellara’s epic solo victory. Last year, just weeks after winning Milano-Sanremo, Kristoff missed the winning, four-man move, crossing the line just eight seconds back in fifth after a desperate, late-race chase.
Kristoff only takes confidence from those previous performances, and promises to make the race, rather than react.
“I have learned I have this strong attack. I don’t always need to sit on the wheels,” he said. “I hope to be there in the final [Sunday]. Maybe Luca [Paolini] can be there as well. If I have good legs, and I have teammates, I hope to be racing for the podium.”
The Russian-backed Katusha roars into the Belgian spring races with its best options for northern classic success since its creation in 2009. Not only is Kristoff hitting a new level, veteran Italian Paolini gives the team a strong second card to play Sunday over the bergs.
The team lines up to support Kristoff, but if the brawny Norwegian is on an off day or crashes out, then Katusha will let Paolini play his hand. That’s exactly what happened last Sunday at a wild and windy Gent-Wevelgem. Kristoff waved on Paolini, and the Italian didn’t hesitate a moment, bridging to the winning move. His wile and experience paid off with a dramatic victory that only bolsters the team’s confidence.
“Alexander is our leader, but as you saw at Wevelgem, I can have my chances if he’s not there,” Paolini said. “Personally, I believe Alexander can win. He is strong enough to make the selection, and no one can beat him in a sprint. If he has good legs and good luck, I think he can win Flanders.”
Katusha also brings others to help push the pace and protect Kristoff until the key bergs deep into the race. From there, it’s every man for himself, but that’s where Paolini believes Kristoff has an advantage over other riders with a speedy finishing kick.
“Alexander can go the distance. When it’s more than 240km, there is no one who can beat him. Only a very strong John Degenkolb, who timed his sprint perfectly, could beat Alexander at Sanremo,” said Paolini, referring to Milano-Sanremo last month. “The other sprinters cannot last the longer distances of the classics. That’s a big advantage for Alexander, because he can still be very fast at the end of a race that’s 240km, 260km long.”
Kristoff’s rising form will only put more pressure on rival teams to try to isolate and then drop him. Of the other top favorites for this weekend, only Degenkolb or Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) can truly challenge Kristoff in a reduced-bunch sprint. Others, such as Etixx-Quick-Step’s Niki Terpstra or Zdenek Stybar, Geraint Thomas (Sky), and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) will have to try to drop him on the bergs, or ride him off their wheel, neither of which will be easy if Kristoff is on top form.
For some odds-makers, Kristoff doesn’t quite bubble up to the front-line favorites, but the peloton knows that he will be trouble if they let him hang around. The problem is, the harder the race is, the better it is for Kristoff, because the pace helps shed other rival sprinters.
For Kristoff and Katusha, it’s all about keeping their Norwegian well-placed until the final dash to the line.
“If Alexander is in the finale, he has a very good chance to win,” Paolini said. “The entire team is believing in him. He’s already won Milano-Sanremo, so I think his time has come.”
In fact, nearly all of Katusha’s major wins this season have come from Kristoff and Paolini, so the team is hoping for one more kick on Sunday.