As wearer of the leader’s jersey at the Three Days of De Panne, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was obliged to turn up for the morning leg of the race’s final split stage at an hour when the majority of his Tour of Flanders rivals were still sleeping soundly in their hotels.
It was past 1am before Kristoff’s eyes had fallen shut the previous night – “Normally I can never sleep before 1 anyway,” he grimaced – but although he lined up for the start on barely six hours of rest, he figured that, well, he might as well win.
Already the emphatic winner of the two opening stages in Zottegem and Koksijde, Kristoff completed his hat-trick when he edged out André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) in the tightest of sprint finishes in De Panne on Thursday morning. Repeated viewing of the photo-finish offered no confirmation, but the commissaires ultimately found in Kristoff’s favour by a mere three millimetres.
“I didn’t see a difference myself. Even in the photo finish we looked the same, and I had no clue if I had won,” Kristoff told reporters in the press conference after the morning stage. “I was quite tired this morning but it’s the third time I’ve won this morning stage at De Panne.”
At that point, Kristoff’s lead over Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing) in the general classification stood at 22 seconds, and not only had he been unable to join the traditional exodus of Flanders contenders the previous night, he would now have to ride the 14.2km afternoon time trial at full tilt to boot. The price of forgetting how to lose.
“Well if you’re the leader, you can’t just quit. And it’s not so long, so I hope it’s going to be ok,” Kristoff said. “Maybe for Flanders it’s better to rest today, I don’t know, but I feel quite good and I’ve done this already. I’ve never quit De Panne before the last day before and I’ve finished fourth and fifth in Flanders in the last two years.”
When it was subsequently announced that Kristoff would not be returning for another press conference in the afternoon even if he did defend his overall lead, one reporter jokingly asked: “So Alexander, how does it feel to win the Three Days of De Panne?”
Out of superstition, or perhaps simply out of modesty, Kristoff laughed and declined to answer, though in hindsight, he would have been well entitled. To the dismay of the Stijn Devolder Fan Club members merrily quenching their thirst along De Panne’s Zeelaan, Kristoff was just one second down on the Belgian at the time check after 5.4 kilometres. He would go on to take third place on the stage, one second ahead of Devolder, to seal final overall victory.
“That was maybe my best time trial ever,” Kristoff told a television crew as he waited to mount the podium. “I was a bit worried before the start and I was a little bit behind him halfway but then I took some time back. I haven’t done a lot of time trials flat out but I’m very happy with how that went.”
Tour of Flanders
Kristoff’s haul of four victories in three days brings his running total for the season to date to nine and underscores his status among the favourites for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, though he was quick to dismiss the notion that he would be unbeatable in the event of a sprint in Oudenaarde.
“I lost at Milan-San Remo, so I’m not unbeatable,” he smiled, though he later added: “I lacked maybe one extra guy there, 50 metres. If I could have started my sprint where I wanted, I think I could have won.”
With both Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara ruled out through injury, this Tour of Flanders takes on a curious complexion, and Kristoff has been hoisted into the upper echelon of contenders for the win, though he noted that Boonen’s absence might not necessarily be of benefit to him.
“Etixx have a lot of strong guys who can attack and without Boonen they will try to avoid a group sprint, so maybe that’s not better for me actually,” Kristoff said. “But on the other hand, there are good riders who are out, so it’s hard to say which is better for me.”
Kristoff was stoical when asked if he feared the attacks on the Oude Kwaremont – “It’s always hard on the Kwaremont, but that’s hard for everyone” – and he agreed when it was put to him that his approach will ultimately not be unlike that of Tom Boonen in his pomp. As (one of) the fastest contenders for the win, he is not obliged to be the strongest man in the race to claim the win in Oudenaarde.
“Exactly, my tactics will be similar to Boonen, and he actually was my idol when I was young and I wanted to be like him. Maybe now I’m getting closer,” Kristoff said. “I don’t need to be the strongest but I must be able to follow, and you still need to be strong to do that.”
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