The 30-year-old Norwegian believes that combining the Dubai Tour (February 6-11), the Tour of Oman (Feb 13-18) and the Abu Dhabi Tour (Feb 20-25) into one block of racing will give him the foundation of form and early success he needs to again be at his best for the spring Classics.
"It's like riding a fake Grand Tour in February but with extra rest days, it's not fake racing, it's going to be hard," Kristoff tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview.
"I hope to come out it with good shape like I did after last year's Tour de France. After a difficult Tour, I won the RideLondon Classic and had a good final part of the season. I need to race a lot and I hope my 'fake Grand Tour', followed by Paris-Nice, will get me ready for the Classics. Milan-San Remo is my first big goal but I'll keep going until Paris-Roubaix."
Kristoff's fallout with Katusha-Alpecin was well documented and he is ready to start a new chapter of his career at UAE Team Emirates. As current European road race champion, Kristoff will wear a star-spangled all-white kit. His new jersey is only one aspect of a pivotal moment in his career.
"It's exciting to make a change. It's all a little different for now, with new teammates, new people and new equipment but it feels good to start something new. It's exciting and it's a boost of extra motivation," Kristoff says, carefully to avoid any polemics with his old team but making it clear he was happy to move on and have more control of his career.
"I felt I needed a change. I felt I was not going anywhere. The results were not as good as they were, I felt I should try something new."
Kristoff won 64 races during his six seasons with Katusha-Alpecin, including Milan-San Remo in 2014 and the Tour of Flanders in 2015. However, their relationship soured in the spring of 2017 after the team, under pressure due to a lack of results, criticised him for being overweight. He responded by pointing he was the only rider in the team to have won races and his agent began to listen to other offers.
A divorce was inevitable when Katusha opted not to select his lead-out man Michael Mørkøv for the Tour de France and Kristoff struggled during the race due to a difficult build-up in May and June. The Russian team made it clear that they would not offer anything near his reported €2 million contract, with Alpecin preferring Marcel Kittel to promote their shampoo.
Kristoff had interest from Astana and other teams but liked what he heard about UAE Team Emirates and agreed to terms during the final days of the Tour.
"My time with Katusha didn't end badly but it could have ended better. We left as friends but there were some issues during the season. But in the end, I got good results in 2017," Kristoff says of his split with Katusha-Alpecin, convinced that he showed his true worth in August by winning the RideLondon Classic, the European title and taking a close second place to Peter Sagan at the World Championships in Bergen, Norway.
"There are always circumstances that lead to every result be it good or bad," he suggests.
"The team knew I was not 100 percent but we all hoped for better results. I crashed at Paris-Roubaix and I had a knee problem as a consequence. I got sick and wasn't good at the Tour of California and then got sick again at the [Criterium du] Dauphiné. My run-up to the Tour de France was not great and that made the difference. I wanted to win at least one stage in the Tour but I wasn't even close."
"I kind of saved my year with the last part of the season and things got better at Katusha but by then I had already agreed to join UAE Team Emirates."
Why UAE Team Emirates?
Some people were surprised to see Kristoff move to UAE Team Emirates. However, there is logic to the move and like Dan Martin and Fabio Aru, he got an early explanation of the team's plans for the future. They really wanted him, money was not a problem and so the deal was done quickly.
"There were several teams interested but it was clear that UAE Team Emirates was a good alternative to Katusha. They didn't have a main sprinter and wanted me for the Classics, too. That gives me the freedom to do the sprints and Classics that I want," Kristoff explains.
"At Katusha, there were also rumours that Kittel was coming, I knew that Alpecin wanted him, so I knew I'd have more chances and more freedom in UAE than if I stayed at Katusha.
"I liked how Carlo Saronni explained the team's ambitions to me. I also checked out how they operated and the equipment they have and so more or less made the decision during the Tour de France that they were the team for me. I don't speak Italian but now all the staff speak English. It reminds me a lot of my first year in Katusha which also had an Italian core."
Kristoff swapped his trusted Canyon bike for a Campagnolo-equipped Colnago Concept, the Italian brand's aero bike.
"I last raced on a Colnago as a junior and so I didn't know how good the bikes are. I didn't expect it to be that good, it was a positive surprise," he says.
Recreating his lead-out train will not be as easy as changing bikes. UAE Team Emirates had Sacha Modolo and Ben Swift as their sprinters in 2017, with Roberto Ferrari as a back-up and frequent lead-out man. Swift remained and is hoping to get his own career back on track while forming part of Kristoff's lead-out train. Ferrari will be a key rider for Kristoff as they build a lead-out train from scratch in training and at the 'fake Grand Tour'.
"We know we're going have to work on the lead-out train," Kristoff admits openly.
"But Ferrari has done some great lead-outs in the past and we've got Ben Swift, too, when he's not riding a different programme. We also have some good talented guys like Simone Consonni and strong engines like Oliviero Troia and Filippo Ganna. They're young but talented."
"I think I'll have help in every race. I know the team will not all be there for me in every race because we've got the likes of Dan Martin and Fabio Aru for stage races. That's OK. I'm happy with that. I'm sure we'll split the team between my goals in the sprints and the GC guys' hopes. They need help in the mountains and I need help on the flat, but I can help Dan on the flat and cobbled stage [of the Tour de France], too. It won't be a big difference to riding alongside Purito Rodriguez at Katusha and so it won't be a problem for me."
No regrets about losing to Sagan in Bergen
Kristoff knows his race programme through the end of the season, with the new Stavanger round of the Hammer Series one of his summer goals, after the Tour of California and before the Tour de Suisse and Tour de France. He will defend his European title but is not expecting to be part of the Norwegian team for the UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck because the course is far too hilly for him.
Four months on from his second place behind Peter Sagan at the Bergen World Championships, Kristoff tries to think back to losing out on a home world title but it is clear that emotions of defeat and 'what-if' thoughts still run through his mind.
"It was close but I try not to think about it," he says feigning nonchalance.
"For sure I wish I would have been able to close that four-centimetre gap. But that's life, Peter beat me and he's a big champ, there's nothing I can do about it now.
"I've watched the replay of the sprint a few times and I've not seen anything I did wrong. Maybe I started a little early but I'm not slowing down at the line, I've checked my power and speed data. If you look closely, I almost come past him and so if the race had been 50 metres longer, I might have won. Maybe if someone else was on my wheel other than Peter I'd have won it. I just had the wrong guy on my wheel."
Leaner and fitter
To avoid any doubts about Kristoff's form and weight, he posted a photo of his lean torso and six-pack on Instagram on December 21 at the end of the first UAE Team Emirates training camp in Sicily. He has since spent time with his family and close friend Sven Erik Bystrøm training in Gran Canaria, and has recently returned to Syracuse in the east of Sicily to clock up another big block of training.
"I'm close to my race weight of the World Championships and I'm ahead of schedule with my training," Kristoff says.
"I started training in November, doing a lot of gym work. Then at the camp and in Gran Canaria during the holidays, it was about endurance and laying down the foundations for the season ahead. The weather can be bad in Norway but when I'm there I can take it easy and go on the rollers because I've done the big blocks in the warmth."
Kristoff will escape the cold of Norway in February with his 'fake Grand Tour' in the Gulf. It is the last building block to success in the Classics.
"I want to perform well all spring but Milan-San Remo is the big first goal and I want to win before, during the 'fake Grand Tour'. Early wins are important for morale but I want to win more Monuments, too. I hope to take everything that comes my way between now and Paris-Roubaix."
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