An ominous warning delivered with a smile. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) completed a hat-trick of stage wins on the final leg of the Tour of Qatar to match his haul from 2015, and then decreed afterwards that his week in the desert had been even better than 12 months ago.
On arriving on the cobbles following his successful Gulf campaign last Spring, Kristoff could scarcely stop winning, his period of aristeia only halted at Paris-Roubaix. One can never step in the same river twice, of course, but the Norwegian will have been encouraged by early signals from the Tour of Qatar, his first race of the season.
“My results in Qatar are even better than last year, even if I did a worse time trial,” Kristoff said. “The team did such a good job. Without them I would never have been able to win these stages because every day I had a very good lead-out.”
Indeed, had it not been for that surprisingly low-key showing in the Lusail time trial, where he admitted that his power output was around 10 watts down from the corresponding stage last year, Kristoff may well have claimed final overall victory to boot. As it was, he eventually placed second, just five seconds behind eventual winner Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data).
Kristoff was soundly beaten by Cavendish at Al Khor on the opening day, but he has had the upper hand in their encounters since. The windswept, slightly uphill finish at Qatar University on stage 2 clearly favoured a rider of Kristoff’s power and he duly delivered by just edging out the Manxman.
At Madinat Al Shamal on stage 4, meanwhile, the sheer intensity of Katusha’s lead-out – allied to Cavendish’s isolation in the winning echelon – meant that the Manxman had little chance of getting back on terms with Kristoff in the sprint.
For the grandstand finale on Doha’s Corniche, however, each man had a full sprint train at his disposal and – not surprisingly – it was the closest run sprint of the lot. Kristoff eventually prevailed by mere millimetres, though it took some close scrutiny of the photo finish before the commissaires confirmed the verdict.
“It was a little bit closer today, and I didn't know if I had won or not because we were dead even. So I'm happy I had a little bit longer arms,” Kristoff joked.
“That sprint was pretty hectic. We controlled the break and we were able to be in front at the last corner, we had a good position there. Then Dimension Data overtook us a little bit, but we managed to stay together more or less. I passed them again with 200 metres to go, then Cavendish came by my side. I thought he got me...”
At this early point of the season, races serve as a journey rather than a destination, but Kristoff acknowledged that picking up a few mementos along the way in the form of victories is one way of shortening a road that leads all the way to Roubaix in mid-April.
“It was a great preparation for me, getting a lot of confidence. I had two very close sprints with Mark and yesterday I won a good one with the team,” Kristoff said. “We are confident going into the Classics.
“For me it's been a really important race to know where I'm at also for my preparation, to go deep some days with the crosswinds. And you also have the same fighting here like you have in the classics. It's good preparation.”
And, like many others in Qatar this week, Kristoff’s road will eventually double back on itself at the end of the 2016 season. The Norwegian was able to sample Doha’s sinuous World Championships finishing circuit on stage 2, and though October 16 is a long way off, the year’s terminus will never be completely out of mind.
“I'll come back in October now to try to win the World Championships, but it'll be difficult,” Kristoff said. “It's going to be very hot.”