When Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff last saw each other, they were fighting elbow to elbow on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, but today they were reunited for a coffee in a traditional Sami hut ahead of the Arctic Race of Norway.
The two most successful sprinters of the Tour de France, with four and two stage victories respectively, resume after a two and half weeks break, but their next battle will be at an unusual location as stage 1 of the race will finish at the North Cape in front of the monument marking the northernmost extreme of the European continent.
"I guess this is a new experience," Kittel said as he discovered the lifestyle of the populations who cook reindeer in a fireplace in the middle of the small hut called a "mikkelgammen" by the locals. "I've never been that far north, away from home."
Norwegian Kristoff and Thor Hushovd experienced the same feeling as they also never visited the far north of their country until the Arctic Race took them here.
"The roads are really different," Kittel noted from his training ride. "There's no danger. The sea, the lakes and the fjords make Norway very special. The nature is beautiful. It's a nice way to resume racing here. We must be prepared for these special conditions. It can be windy near the North Cape but I hope it won't rain. However, it's nice to resume training here. But firstly, I have to find my legs again and see how it goes."
The finale of stage 1 includes two hills in the last 25 kilometres. The race will also award an unusual first mountain prime, contested not at altitude, but some below sea level, when the race heads into the North Cape tunnel and climbs out for the first categorized climb of the race.
"Stage 2 suits both of us," Kristoff reassured Kittel. "I've taken it easy after the Tour de France but I'm in good shape again. I'm ready for another fight with Marcel."
"I've done nothing after the Tour," Kittel told Cyclingnews. "I only took part in criteriums in Belgium and Holland." His teammate Thierry Hupond realized that the German sprinter remained in good form. "Last year, he lost his condition after the Tour but not this time. We're hoping to work hard for him with the target of two stage wins."
Kittel was full of praise for his strongest rival in the sprints of the Tour de France. "Alexander is a good guy," he said. "We fight in the sprints but we have a good relationship. He's racing at home now but if I get a chance, I'll go for the win again."
Kristoff also is targeting the first two stages. Last year, the first edition of the Arctic Race won by Thor Hushovd was mostly flat but stage 3 gives a different identity to the event with the 7km long uphill finish to Kvænangsfjellet on stage 3 and the Tromsø summit on the finishing circuit of the fourth and last stage. "Even though I feel good and motivated, I might struggle in the hills," said the winner of Milan-San Remo. "Seven kilometers of climbing, that will be tough."