HARSTAD, Norway — A two-stage victor in the 2014 Tour de France, soaring into the 2015 Tour after an excellent classics campaign, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was understandably disappointed with the way things turned out at this year’s Tour. Slowed by sickness, Kristoff was unable to add to his win tally in France — a pair of third-place finishes were the best results he could muster. But less than a month after his summer plans went off the rails, Alexander Kristoff’s worlds-bound train has gotten itself back on track in Norway: He took a convincing stage 1 victory Thursday in a tough uphill sprint in the coastal town of Harstad, ahead of countryman Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka).
After he crossed the line in Paris, his focus shifted to his buildup toward the world championship road race in Richmond, Virginia. The first stop on Kristoff’s road to Richmond after the Tour de France? The far northern reaches of his home country, the Arctic Race of Norway, where he took a pair of stage wins and second overall in 2014.
Thursday’s victory didn’t come easy, especially at the end of 210.5km day, and with a hectic finale that saw Kristoff’s leadout man Marco Haller tangle with Boasson Hagen — the MTN rider gave Haller a bit of a push after Haller nearly rode him into the barriers. But Katusha executed the sprint well, getting things going according to plan again for Kristoff.
“We had a good position in the last kilometers,” Kristoff said after the finish. “And in the sprint, it was more or less man-against-man because of the uphill. Luckily I was the strongest there in the final climb and could take it up. It was a great win, and I’m happy to start this good.”
Kristoff has more pro wins than any rider in the peloton this season. After a winless July, he was quite pleased to find himself back on the podium after his 19th victory of 2015, especially with the prospect of a rainbow jersey looming large.
“It’s good, 19 wins this year. I hope to at least make it 20, and I can take the last one at worlds,” he said with a grin.
Many are tipping Kristoff as a top favorite on the world’s course, which includes a few short but steep cobbled climbs en route to a finish that could favor a rider packing a good sprint. A course that suits him is one thing, but having the form to fight for a win in one of cycling’s most hotly contested races is another. A stage victory in the Arctic Race will be important for morale.
“It’s a good start for me, for the buildup for worlds,” Kristoff said. “I knew in training at home that I was in good condition, because I saw my numbers last week.
“Even if I was sick the week after the Tour — I had some fever — I started training again, and for two days I felt really bad, but then the shape was coming back. So I was pretty confident on the start, but then I was struggling a bit in the race, and my confidence went away a bit — but at the end it came back.”
An uphill final kilometer with a gradient of about four percent made the stage more difficult for the fast finishers. In fact, the final climb in Harstad was almost too hard for Kristoff.
“It was a little bit on the limit for me, this [finish],” Kristoff said. “Normally I can handle up to 1km but it was quite hard. If it was much more, I think I would have lost, I had quite stiff legs at the end.”
The fact that stage 1 offered such a tough finale should give Kristoff reason to feel happy with the way his Arctic Race has kicked off. Richmond’s short, cobbled climbs will likely be too difficult for pure sprinters. Still, it sounds like the Norwegian strongman has some ground left to cover in his prep for the challenge of winning a world championship.
Kristoff is downplaying his chances for a GC bid in the Arctic Race — where the sprinters are at least in the conversation for the overall — given the tougher climbs to come and the way he’s feeling after a first stage.
“My climbing legs are not perfect,” he said. “I was already struggling in this local lap here, and this [stage] seems like the easiest one. Tomorrow is a good stage again for me, and then I think the last two days will be too hard.”
Perhaps he’s only playing coy about his GC aspirations, but even just one stage win is a step forward for Kristoff’s rainbow jersey dreams after a less-than-ideal trip to France.
“I didn’t win the whole summer, so it was about time,” Kristoff said. “I’m glad I did here in the Arctic Race. Now I can relax a bit because I have a win.”