No matter how you crunch Alexander Kristoff’s numbers, it makes for an imposing batting average. The Katusha rider has had a total of eleven race days so far in 2016 and he has already won five races. Or, to put it another way, he has won five out of the six bunch sprints he has contested this season.
Kristoff’s stock has risen year-on-year during his time at Katusha. He won just two races – and an Olympic bronze medal – in his first season in 2012, then six the following year, before his figures spiked dramatically in 2014, when he clocked up 14 victories. Kristoff is now already a quarter of the way to matching his 2015 haul of 20 victories, after he powered to victory on the final stage of the Tour of Oman at Matrah Corniche on Sunday, to claim his second win of the race.
“If it was a few years ago, then if I did nothing the rest of the season I would still have been happy, but now after the last two years, I want a little bit more from the bigger races also,” Kristoff said afterwards of the returns from a Gulf campaign that also saw him claim a hat-trick of wins at the Tour of Qatar.
“It gives me confidence and it also gives the team confidence that we can win races. Of course, the Classics are a bit different, they’re harder and longer, but it’s still many of the same guys racing there, so when you can beat them here you can also beat them there.”
Kristoff arrived in Qatar two weeks ago fearing that he would even be able to compete as Katusha faced a possible collective ban after Eduard Vorganov became the team’s second positive doping case in the past twelve months. The UCI Disciplinary Commission, however, opted not to impose a sanction because Luca Paolini’s case was deemed to be a social drug problem rather than a sporting case, and the team has been strikingly to the fore ever since.
Taking on Kittel and Cavendish, thinking of the tougher Classics
In Qatar last week, Kristoff faced robust competition from Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), and only edged him out by the width of a tube on two occasions. With the Manxman already back in Britain to prepare for the World Track Championships, Kristoff and Katusha effectively enjoyed a monopoly in Oman.
On Sunday, the outcome was never in doubt, with Marco Haller and Jacopo Guarnieri laying the groundwork for Kristoff to unleash a ferocious sprint to win ahead of Zico Waeytens and Soren Kragh Andersen of Giant-Alpecin.
“For me it was just a question of holding the speed and I saw that nobody could come past. When you are delivered with this speed in that position it’s not too difficult to win actually,” he said.
Kristoff admitted that getting the better of Marcel Kittel, who has made such a successful start to life at Etixx-QuickStep, will not be so straightforward, acknowledging the German’s apparent superiority in a head-to-head sprint.
“I think in the really flat sprints, Kittel is really focused on them, and I think it will be difficult to pass him. You see how he’s sprinted now already, nobody has really been close,” Kristoff said. “But it will be exciting to see how I am against him. I am expecting to lose in the easy races but in the harder races, I hope I can drop him.”
Although banking wins as he has done in Qatar and Oman is a staple of Kristoff’ day-to-day business as a sprinter, he knows that the value of his spring will ultimately be assessed by how he fares at Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Having won a Monument in each of the past two years, he will look to maintain that record in 2016. With those Classics in mind, Saturday’s hilly penultimate stage was a quietly important test.
“I’m focused on being a little stronger in the climbs. Yesterday I did not quite make it, I was one minute behind, but if I get just a little bit stronger I can also compete in the harder races,” he said. “Hopefully in the next weeks I will be a little bit better and get over more climbs.”
Kristoff returns to Europe on Monday to prepare with his status as the man to watch even further enhanced but he was less optimistic when it came to his prospects of shining at Belgium’s Opening Weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
“It’s a little bit difficult. I’ve never been very good in those two races and perhaps it’s because coming there is a bit of a shock for the body,” he said. “It’s not really my main target to perform next week but for sure it would be nice to do well. But if I am not super, that’s like usual.”