Kristoff on track for Tour of Flanders challenge

'I’m confident for Ronde,' says Katusha rider

Katusha's Alexander Kristoff solidified his status as a pre-race favourite for the Tour of Flanders with a commanding victory on stage 1 of the Driedaagse De Panne in Zottegem.

The Norwegian jumped clear of the peloton on the Berendries and linked up with a lead group that included teammate Sven Erik Bystrom. Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal), Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing), Sean De Bie (Lotto Soudal) and Lars Ytting Bak (Lotto Soudal) before unleashing a measured but ultimately unstoppable sprint to beat Debusschere to the line.

“I told the guys to keep it close and that I could bridge up the Berendries. We worked full gas all the way until the finish and we kept the gap but I was never totally sure because Debusschere is a fast guy but he wasn’t really pulling. I didn’t know how fresh he was but in the end I could take it,” Kristoff said as he made his way to the podium to pick up the first leader’s jersey of this year’s race.

The win marked Kristoff’s sixth victory of what has been a successful season - only Richie Porte has picked up more – and gives Katusha their second win in three days on Belgian soil after Luca Paolini claimed Gent-Wevelgem. Asked if his confidence had improved with today’s win the 27-year-old from Oslo pointed to his 2015 track-record but acknowledged that his team have greatly improved during this campaign. The improvements were evident at the start of the year at the Tour of Qatar and six weeks on they could help land Kristoff a place on the Tour of Flanders podium.

“I’ve won a lot already this year and I’m quite confident but it doesn’t hurt to take another victory,” he told reporters.

“We’ve had a really good Classics campaign so far and that continues today with the whole team. We were always near the front and this is perhaps the best team effort we’ve had so far this season.

“We’ve worked well today and in the other Classics. We didn’t make a lot of new signings but we’ve always had a quite young team in recent years and now we have the same guys but they’re old, with more experience and more strength. “

The sprint itself may have pleased Kristoff and his team but it was the groundwork on the Berendries and the success in holding of the Team Sky-led peloton that perhaps gave Kristoff the greater sense of achievement. In E3 Harelbeke he was unable to match the best on the Oude Kwaremont and in Gent-Wevelgem the former Milan-San Remo winner suffered in the crosswinds.

However, on the road to Zottegem it was Kristoff who seized the initiative.

“I’ve won in sprints before but I’ve not bridged over to front groups like that on many occasions. So it gives me confidence because it shows that I’m in good shape and that’s important for Flanders,” he said.

“I learnt that I’m strong enough to attack and that I don’t have to sit on the wheel. I’m happy with how the legs are responding especially on the climbs. I was actually good on the Kemmelberg in Gent-Wevelgem but suffered in the crosswinds so for Ronde, I’m confident for Ronde, but when the best attacked on the Kwaremont in Harelbeke I couldn’t follow. I wasn’t so far back but maybe I can do it in the Ronde.”

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