This time 12 months ago, it seemed as though Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) had forgotten how to lose. After picking up a hat-trick of stage wins at the Tour of Qatar, he then tacked on two more at the Tour of Oman and, as he emerged from the Gulf races, he seemed poised for a repeat of his stunning spring of 2015.
A Classic man's campaign is judged squarely on how he fares on those ardent weekends of late March and early April, however, and Kristoff's early blaze of success was relegated to a mere footnote after he fell short at Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The bout of illness that ruled him out of Gent-Wevelgem limited his effectiveness thereafter.
"I was never good again after that illness, because I had fever for two or three days and that ruined the Classics but hopefully I can avoid that this year," Kristoff said in Muscat on Monday. "I still got fourth place in Flanders, which I was actually happy with, considering the approach I had.
"I was feeling good before I got sick, but the results didn't look so great last year, because I didn't win in Paris-Nice, and then I didn't do a good result at Milan-San Remo. But that was actually the first year I didn't get dropped on the Poggio, so my shape was not bad. I just did a mistake on the last corner and that was it."
With the Tour of Qatar stricken from the calendar, a surprise considering its elevation to WorldTour status, Kristoff broke from his usual habit of starting his season in the Gulf and instead lined out for his first taste of competitive action at Étoile des Bessèges. Although Kristoff won stage 2 into Rodilhan, he was twice beaten into second place by Arnaud Démare (FDJ), and he admits that he is unsure of how his form compares to the same point in 2015 or 2016.
"It's hard to tell because in Qatar in the last years I usually won quite a lot, but Démare beat me two of the days in Bessèges so I'm not really sure how strong I am," Kristoff said. "It was tradition for me to go Qatar: I liked the fight for position, it was good preparation for the Classics, and it's a pity we don't race there because it gave me a lot of opportunities for wins there."
The Tour of Oman, by contrast, offers less fertile terrain for the fast men, even though Kristoff is the pick of the sprinters on show in the Gulf this week. The opening stage to Naseem Park and the final leg to Matrah Cornice – both finishes where Kristoff won a year ago – seem to be the only days where the pure sprinters can expect to come out on top.
"The others look too hard for me on paper, but I'll try at least to go hard on the days that finish on the flat," Kristoff said. "It's important to go deep this week to build up the shape because the Classics are coming closer."
A feature of racing in both Qatar and Oman a year ago was the overwhelming strength of Kristoff's red guard in sprint finales. Despite the loss of Jacopo Guarnieri, who left for FDJ during the off-season, the Norwegian evinces confidence about the level of support he will enjoy this season, even if he is lacking an important element of his final lead-out train.
"I think we have more power in the team around me. We miss Jacopo [Guarnieri] for the lead-out, he's gone to FDJ, but we have more guys who can control the race and make sure we get to the sprint," Kristoff said. "In the end, we are not weaker for the sprints. We have more power in the team for controlling races. I'm optimistic."