The 2017 Classics campaign has not been a happy hunting ground for Alexander Kristoff and his Katusha-Alpecin team. The former Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders winner has been without so much as a podium place this spring – fourth at San Remo has been his closest brush with the rostrum.
The opening day at Three Days of De Panne, where Kristoff won over the same parcours in 2016, was an opportunity to get the Norwegian's Classics back on track but, yet again, it didn't go his way. Kristoff admitted to Norwegian website Procycling.no afterwards that he is missing the form required just yet but believes that he can make some improvements by the weekend.
"I had hoped to be able to stay with the best. I've done it the last two years, but this year I maybe lacked a little. I'm not exactly where I should be, but there are still some days left for Flanders," he said. "It's a little late to do much now. I'll just race, and then we'll see how it goes."
Katusha had hoped to go on the offensive, but Kristoff found himself on the backfoot when he missed the key move, forcing his team to burn their matches in an attempt to close the yawning gap that had opened up in front of them.
"The plan was to be at the front," Katusha's Baptiste Plankaert told Cyclingnews. "Unfortunately, Alex wasn't in the first group so we had to chase, and then we discussed things and said that we would go to Berendries [the fourth to last climb - Ed.] and there Kristoff would make the jump to the first group, but he didn't make it.
"This is racing in Belgium and you can't always do what you want to do, but we chased really hard and I hope that we can get some results soon."
When Kristoff's move failed, Katusha switched their hopes to his trusted lead-out man Marco Haller, but he too was unable to follow a supreme Gilbert when the Belgian blew the break apart on the final ascent of the Muur. In the end, Kristoff caught and passed Haller before the finish but still lost almost a minute to Gilbert.
Kristoff's San Remo fourth and Planckaert's 10th at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, despite crashing with his own teammate, have been the only lights so far for Katusha. Crashes and punctures have hampered much of the Kristoff's spring right from the opening weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. They have each been knocks to the confidence for the team, but they remain positive that there is a result around the corner.
"It has been really frustrating with punctures, crashes. I think only in Waregem [Dwars door Vlaanderen] and Harelbeke we didn't have a puncture or a crash. In all the rest, Nieuwsblad, Kuurne, Wevelgem, we always had some bad luck. Maybe that will change to good luck and that would be nice.
"Everyone knows that we are in shape so it's like I said, one time it will change and we will win. We have all strong riders and everybody knows what to do, and one day it will come."
Katusha will get a few more bites at the cherry this week ahead of the Tour of Flanders with three more stages - two road and one time trial - to come at the Three days of De Panne.