Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) says that he will not be among the top favourites when he lines up on Sunday to defend his Tour of Flanders title. The 2015 champion believes that he will be in the second tier of riders with the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet the men to beat this weekend.
"I think I’m not the biggest favourite," he said after finishing second to Lieuwe Westra at the Three Days of De Panne. "I think that I will be among the favourites but Cancellara, Sagan and Greg they are maybe bigger favourites. I won last year but how they raced last week, especially Sagan in both races and Cancellara in Harelbeke, how strong he was there, makes it look to me that it will probably be hard for me to follow in the climbs. Still, usually I perform well in Flanders every year I’ve had a good result so I will hope I have the same feeling as last year."
Kristoff’s De Panne got off to a flying start after he beat fellow escapees Westra and Alexey Lutsenko in the sprint into Zottegem, on a challenging opening day that included two ascents of the Muur Van Geraardsbergen. It was an impressive effort from Kristoff, but he admitted later that it had an impact on him the following day when he struggled to keep up with Marcel Kittel and Elia Viviani in the sprint.
Kristoff was beaten for a second time in the sprint on Thursday morning, with Kittel coming up trumps despite a line-perfect lead out from his Katusha team. He went into the final stage of the Three Days of De Panne with a small margin over Lutsenko and Westra. He put in a solid effort in the time trial, but it wasn’t enough to hold onto his lead, losing to Westra by 13 seconds in the end.
"I knew I was behind, but still not so much. I was still getting good feedback that my speed was ok. I tried to speed up but I couldn’t keep the power. I felt maybe a little bit stronger last year but I was sick last weekend so it’s usually normal to be a little bit weaker."
Last year, it appeared at the time that anything Kristoff touched would turn into a victory as he headed into the Tour of Flanders off the back of three stage wins and the overall victory at the Three Days of De Panne. In contrast, Kristoff has looked out of sorts in recent weeks and was dropped by the favourites during E3 Harelbeke. He was then set back by an illness that forced him to skip Gent-Wevelgem.
Kristoff has been riding himself into shape at the Three Days of De Panne but he still feels short of the form he needs for the weekend. "I still feel I have a few percent missing. I don’t know in numbers but I felt a little bit stronger last year," he explained.
"Today I did a good time trial but last year I was slightly stronger in the time trial so I feel maybe a few per cent worse than last year. Maybe that will change and I will feel better in a few days. Last weekend I was sick and I was feeling better day by day so hopefully on Sunday I’m good."
Kristoff still has two days to find something extra for Flanders but the Norwegian believes that he will be trying to hang in there rather than dictating proceedings as he did in 2015.
"You never know. It depends on the legs. Last year, I felt really strong and I could do move like that. The first days [of De Panne] I was not feeling so strong so I had no chance of attacking the two Astana guys, it was enough just to follow. We will see how the legs are on Sunday," he said. "If I’m not strong enough to go away then maybe I will be strong enough to hang on. I will try to do that as best as possible and we will see if I can make it all the way to the final. I think that I will struggle to stay with them in the climbs but I will try at least.
"I have a good final, so I can win but still you must have some legs to sprint with. I have seen Cancellara beat many fast sprinters at the end of a long race because he’s just fresher so we will see."