A comparison of Alexander Kristoff’s 2014 and 2015 schedules offers a decent illustration of his progress. This day twelve months ago, the Norwegian was at E3 Harelbeke, but only to take part in an exhibition sprint match put on to entertain the crowds on the finishing straight as they awaited the arrival of the main event after an afternoon amid the cobbles and hills of the Flemish Ardennes.
This time around, Kristoff was no side show, but one of the principal attractions. Indeed, his was the name that recurred with most frequency when rider after rider was asked to name his danger man by the television crews huddled beneath the signing on rostrum.
Kristoff was certainly the natural favourite in the event of a sizable group sprint but despite the headwind in the closing kilometres, he saw his hopes of a bunch finish fade when Greg Van Avermaet crashed with 17 kilometres remaining, ending BMC’s interest in organising the pursuit.
Although Kristoff’s Katusha teammates Luca Paolini and Alexandr Kolobnev looked to breathe life into the chase in the finale, they could make no inroads into the advantage of the winning break, which had gone clear on the Kwaremont.
“I couldn’t follow the best on the Kwaremont but I was strong. Then I thought we’d catch the break but they were too strong and we had some bad luck too, with BMC crashing on a corner. Maybe it would have been a different result if that crash didn’t happen,” Kristoff said.
At one point, Paolini could be seen remonstrating to lament the lack of cooperation in the 26-strong chasing group, though Katusha themselves could arguably have done more to help out earlier. “I thought it was coming back together but then everything stopped and that’s a pity,” said Kristoff.
While Geraint Thomas soloed to victory ahead of Zdenek Stybar, Peter Sagan’s late collapse saw him swept up by the bunch, meaning that the sprint was now for the third step of the podium. Etixx-QuickStep, however, cannily manoeuvred Matteo Trentin into position, and the Italian managed to beat Kristoff into fourth place.
“Normally I should have taken it but Terpstra came on my side and I had to wait until he passed me and then it was too late,” Kristoff said. They were smart and they blocked me a little bit in the sprint but ok, it was for third place. It’s a pity because it would have been nice to be on the podium but I felt strong in the end and I just had a little bit of bad luck in the sprint. I got blocked with 200 metres to go so it’s difficult to win it.”
Despite struggling on the Cipressa at Milan-San Remo last week, Kristoff recovered sufficiently to deal comfortably with the Poggio and take second place on the Via Roma behind John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano).
“I felt better today than I did in Milan-San Remo so the shape is where it needs to be. I’m happy with the result,” Kristoff said. “I felt good on the climbs. I’m happy with how I feel.”
Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, along with the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, all offer Kristoff the chance to add another classic to his palmarès after his breakout win in San Remo last year. The narrative of those races will be altered radically by the absence of Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), who has been ruled out of the remainder of the classics campaign after fracturing two vertebrae in an early crash on Friday.
“That’s a pity,” he said. “He’s one of the big stars of the sport and when you’re one of these guys who goes out, it’s shit.”