Just how good was Alexander Kristoff’s early season form?
The Norwegian started his campaign at the Tour of Qatar in February, and between his first race and the end of May, racked up 40 race days and won 15: a start-to-win ratio of 38 per cent. For the entire season, his ratio was an only slightly less impressive 25 per cent.
After winning almost everything in the early season and finishing off the year with a strong showing at the World Championships, Kristoff decided to celebrate his off-season in the Bahamas, with some familiar company.
“John Degenkolb had a problem with his hotel so he ended up staying with us at our hotel for one night,” Kristoff reveals. We like to think they played a game of Top Trumps with their seasons: does Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix trump the Tour of Flanders, the Three Days of De Panne and Scheldeprijs?
In 2014, Kristoff won Milan-Sanremo but he’s no longer content to just win one classic a year.
"Next season I want to try and win two [Monument] Classics, like John. This year I was going best in Sanremo and Flanders. I was struggling in Roubaix but I will try again. I want to get one each. I know it’s difficult to get one a year, but it’s my goal.”
When Kristoff says he wants to win two Monuments next season and at least one a season for the foreseeable future, it’s hard to see it as anything other than perfectly realistic. His performance in Flanders was so accomplished and came during a period of such dominance that it made you question whether the space time continuum had altered and wouldn’t allow the Norwegian to lose again.
Watching Kristoff is like watching an accomplished chef craft a new dish. Last season, he won his first Monument and two stages of the Tour de France, but he didn’t win a Flandrian Classic. Too much salt. This year he’s won a Flandrian Classic, but didn’t have a good Tour de France. Needs more sauce. Next season could be the moment it all comes together and the Michelin stars align.
He’s planning to ride the Giro or the Tour of California in 2016. Racing either would mean that he would certainly miss the Tour of Norway but would still be able to race the Tour des Fjords, his home race in the West of Norway, after a late summer date change. Kristoff is now a global name and so an important ambassador for his Russian team.
“Katusha want to position themselves as more of a global brand and so we will be doing more races in North America,” he says. The make up of the team is also changing. Last year just 14 of the 31 riders were non-Russian; next year there will be a greater emphasis on foreign riders. “It’s still a Russian team, but we’d love to have more of an international profile on the team,” the Norwegian says. He’s played his part in helping the team become more global by bringing in 2014 U23 World Champion Sven Erik Bystrøm from the Kristoff-owned Coop-Østerhus team.
Kristoff has completed all five Grand Tours that he’s been sent to and came second in the green jersey competition at the 2014 Tour, although 149 points behind Peter Sagan. With a similarly punchy style to the Slovak and with the Tour organisers continuing their plans to increase the number of points available on flat stages, Kristoff looks like the only person who could challenge Sagan for green. No rider since Erik Zabel in 2001 has won an early season Classic and the green jersey in the same year.
Kristoff is very happy at Katusha, the team which took him on after two years at BMC Racing that began filled with promise, but left him empty handed. But he’s also a proud Norwegian, and the prospect of racing on Thor Hushovd’s Norwegian World Tour team in 2017 is one that certainly interests him. “I would still be under contract to Katusha when he starts the team but it would be nice to be in a Norwegian team. I feel at home with Katusha so it’s not like I would ditch them but it is a difficult decision. I certainly hope he can make good on this."
When you see his results, it’s hard to believe that Kristoff didn’t just spring out of the ground somewhere, a fully fledged pro cyclist. In fact, he almost didn’t make it. “For me, it was not easy turning pro. I almost gave up, though obviously I’m glad now that I didn’t. I had a lot of results, but nobody was interested. I did not know what more I could do.” His original expectations of what he could achieve now look like a striking example of sandbagging,. “I was hoping to go pro but to win Flanders, for example, I did not expect that. I was hoping maybe to do some okay sprints and win some smaller races.”
It’s the end of our interview and time for Kristoff to return to his off-season schedule. He’ll be “off the bike” until December. “I go riding two or three times a week, but not really hard stuff.” When he does return it will most likely be on the windswept Qatari plains, the first step on his journey to the perfect year. Sanremo, Flanders and Roubaix? Not even Merckx did that.