Another crosswind sprint finish, another Alexander Kristoff victory. The law of the strongest prevails once again at the Tour of Qatar, though this time the Norwegian’s prodigious force was amplified by the collective might of his Katusha team.
Kristoff had no fewer than four of his red guard for company in the selection in the frantic closing kilometres of stage 4, whereas Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) had none, and therein, perhaps, lay a sizeable part of the difference.
Sven Erik Bystrom, Michael Mørkøv, Viacheslav Kuznetsov and finally Jacopo Guarnieri all took turns on the front after Katusha picked up the reins with a little under three kilometres remaining, eventually stretching the front group past breaking point and delivering Kristoff to his second stage victory of the week.
“It was not so much wind but it was enough to make this race nervous and in the end it split it up,” Kristoff said. “It was Lotto-Jumbo who put the pressure on, the whole team attacked with one lap to go, and it broke the pack apart. We stayed a little easy on the back until the last kilometres to make a perfect lead-out. We went really hard in the lead-out and it all exploded at the end, so it’s a great team victory for us.”
Katusha’s task was aided in no small part by LottoNL-Jumbo and BMC’s willingness to ride on the front on the final lap of the finishing circuit, and their intensity didn’t drop a beat when race leader Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) punctured with 8 kilometres remaining.
All of Dimension Data’s riders bar Cavendish sat up and waited for Boasson Hagen, and as a result the Manxman was left isolated for the finishing sprint, admitting afterwards that competing for the stage win in such circumstances was a tall order, and he eventually placed fifth in the sprint. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) ultimately proved Kristoff’s closest rival in an atypical sprint, but he had nonetheless identified Cavendish as the danger man on the run-in.
“We knew Cavendish was in the group so we had to make it perfect to win,” he said. “There were enough guys working on the front with BMC and Lotto. BMC had two riders up there on GC so it was up to them a little bit also. So we saved our legs for the really last kilometres to make a lead-out.”
The Katusha team arrived in Qatar unsure if they would even be allowed to race after news of Eduard Vorganov’s positive test for meldonium broke last Friday. It was Katusha’s second anti-doping violation in 12 months following Luca Paolini’s positive test for cocaine at the Tour de France, and they risked a collective suspension of up to 45 days, but on Tuesday afternoon, the UCI Disciplinary Commission announced that they would face no sanction as a team.
“We got the speed really high for the last 2k so nobody was able to move up or almost even to keep up with us, because there was a bit of a crosswind today,” Kristoff said. “So it was perfect teamwork today.”
Although the pace had already been ratcheting upwards even before Boasson Hagen’s puncture, Kristoff was careful to point out that the Katusha team had not taken up the reins in a bid to prevent him from chasing back up to the leading group.
“I was not thinking about him, we were thinking about the stage. It’s a pity about him, but when he punctured at the end, there’s nothing you can do,” Kristoff said.
“Lotto and BMC were pulling but they had already attacked before he had punctured so it was just bad luck for him. I feel sorry for him because he would have won the race here overall, he had enough of a lead.
“It’s a pity, but he should be confident from the way he rode yesterday that he is on the way back. For sure he’s at a really good level.”
Kristoff’s 10-second time bonus for stage victory, in addition to Boasson Hagen’s ill fortune, means that he moves up to fourth place overall, just 9 seconds off the gold jersey, now held by Cavendish. Although logic suggests that the Manxman ought to prevail in the race for overall honours on Doha’s Corniche on Friday, Kristoff warned that nothing is a given when the margins are so tight.
“Usually the wind doesn’t blow so hard on that last lap but you never know. If the wind is right, it can split again tomorrow,” he said. “The classification is really close and we will see what happens but Cavendish is fast and also good in the crosswind. Normally he will manage to protect his lead but you never know. We saw today, Edvald was leading by a lot but he had a bad puncture at the wrong time and then it was over. The race is open again.”