The 31-year-old Norwegian's first year with UAE Team Emirates had started off well enough and he won the Eschborn-Frankfurt for a record breaking fourth time but a lack of perfect form in the spring meant the Classics and build-up to the Tour were disappointing by his own high standards.
Along with Dan Martin, Kristoff has pushed through some changes at UAE Team Emirates but his biggest challenge in 2019 will come from rival sprinter, and now new teammate, Fernando Gaviria, who made a surprise move from Quick-Step Floors late in October.
Cyclingnews sat down with Kristoff in Saitama, Japan, on the occasion of the Saitama Tour de France Criterium, and just after the 2019 UAE Team Emirates squad's first get-together in Abu Dhabi, to assess his season and talk about how and if he can successfully team-up with Gaviria in 2019.
True to character, Kristoff spoke his mind, defending his role as one of the best sprinters and Classics riders in the peloton, while also admitting he will work for Gaviria if the young Colombian proves he is faster in the sprints.
Cyclingnews: Did the Saitama Tour de France Criterium represent the end of your 2018 season or the start of the 2019 season?
Alexander Kristoff: Definitely the start of the new season for me. I went on holiday in October with my wife and kids to Abu Dhabi, and then went back to Abu Dhabi for the first team meeting for 2019. I've had my time off and I'm already back training – not so much on the bike but I'm working in the gym. I'll spend the rest of November at home in Norway and so will soon start training properly.
CN: How do you think your 2018 season went? Were you satisfied with your results and performances?
AK: I'd give myself five out of 10. If I hadn't won the Champs-Elysées stage at the Tour de France, then I'd have given myself two out of 10, because I wasn't happy with my spring.
I started the season OK. I won a stage at the Abu Dhabi Tour and at the Tour of Oman, and had other top 10s, but then I got sick during Paris-Nice. I managed fourth at Milan-San Remo, which was good, and I was hoping I'd be in good shape for the Classics, but it just didn't happen. I wasn't far off but I wasn't 100 per cent. I was perhaps 95 per cent. For example, I made it to the last time up the Oude Kwaremont climb with the leaders at the Tour of Flanders, but I didn't get over it with them. I didn't finish top 10, and so nobody really saw me in the results.
The good thing about my disappointing spring is that I've learned a lesson, and I'll change my early-season racing schedule as a consequence. I did a lot of race days before the Classics this year, riding in Dubai, Oman and Abu Dhabi, thinking it would get me in good shape. But in fact the racing in Dubai and Abu Dhabi was too easy and so I was almost losing shape while racing. The sprint finales were hard but the rest was just riding around. I need harder racing early on in February if I want to be at my best in the spring Classics. I have some problems pushing myself in training, so I need hard racing to get in the big efforts.
CN: Are you happier with your performance at the Tour de France?
AK: Yeah, for sure. Winning on the Champs-Elysées saved my season. I won three WorldTour races in 2018, including Eschborn-Frankfurt, but winning again at the Tour de France was so important after a four-year gap. Everyone in Norway watches the Tour de France, and the Norwegian media had started to suggest I was too old and that I was slowing down. To prove them wrong was a nice feeling.
I earned my win on the Champs-Elysées by suffering through the Alps and the Pyrenees. I suffered like hell, but I'm good at surviving, and so got a chance for the final sprint stage. It wasn't an easy win because, while some sprinters missed the time cuts in the mountains, Arnaud Demare [Groupama-FDJ], John Degenkolb [Trek-Segafredo] and Edvald Boasson Hagen [Dimension Data] were still there, as was Peter Sagan [Bora-Hansgrohe], even if he was suffering after his crash. I'd won stages two stages at the Tour de France in 2014, but winning on the Champs-Elysées was special and something I'll always remember.
CN: The UAE Team Emirates management must have been happy with your victory, too.
AK: Yeah, I think they were. The team didn't win so much this year but Dan Martin won a stage early on in the Tour de France as well. He was strong at the Tour despite some punctures and crashes. It was a nice atmosphere within the team in France. I'd heard it was not the best atmosphere at the Giro at the dinner table after not doing much there, and our bosses were kind of angry after that, so we had some pressure on our shoulders for the Tour. Winning two stages was a relief, even if we wanted to win more.
We saw how other teams did well, with Quick-Step Floors seemingly winning everything, so for sure we need to improve so that we can win more, too. I think the UAE Team Emirates squad is on the right track. We've made some changes to the staff after Dan and I pushed for some changes. They're coming, and so I think the team will be better next year and win more. We want to progress step-by-step by signing new and better riders. I think we can become one of the best teams in the WorldTour in the years to come.
Working with Gaviria
One of those "better riders" is sprint sensation Gaviria. The Colombian has ridden for Quick-Step Floors for the past two seasons, taking four stage wins at the 2017 Giro d'Italia and two stage wins at this year's Tour de France, including the opening stage, which gave him the first yellow jersey of the race.
In somewhat of a surprise transfer – while Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere was still trying to secure a main sponsor for his team, and, therefore, a big enough budget to retain his star riders – Gaviria was allowed to look for a new team and in late October he signed a three-year deal with UAE Team Emirates – a team that already has a headline sprinter in Kristoff.
Gaviria's arrival has sparked questions about who will be UAE Team Emirates number one sprinter.
CN: Everyone is curious about how you and Gaviria will work and sprint together. Have you spoken to him and the team about sprint goals and race programmes for 2019?
AK: We've spoken briefly, and for sure we're going to be apart quite a lot because there's always a double programme – even on the WorldTour calendar.
The team wants a very strong line-up for the Tour de France, and that's the key race, where we'll both want to fight for the sprint wins. In theory, looking at this season, Gaviria is faster than me in the sprints, and so I'll have to accept that and work for him. I also want to sprint for myself, but I'm realistic. If he has a good year and is fast, I'll have to help him.
CN: Is Gaviria's arrival at UAE Team Emirates a problem for you?
AK: It's not what I came to UAE Team Emirates for. I signed when Gaviria wasn't here. For sure, I'll focus on doing my best and see what happens. My contract is up this year, and I know my market value will not get any better if I don't work and do well. If I do shit, it won’t be good for me, so if the team wants me to help him, I will. Then we'll see what possibilities I have. Maybe they'll send me to the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España like Quick-Step Floors did with Elia Viviani.
I hope the UAE team wants me to win rather than just lead out Gaviria; otherwise I'll be a very expensive lead-out man…
CN: Will you be the leader at the spring Classics? You have arguably proven your ability by winning Milan-San Remo in 2014 and the Tour of Flanders in 2015, while Gaviria has still to show his Classics potential.
AK: I'd like to think so. With Gaviria in the team, we'll have more riders for the finale of the races, which is good for me, too. As you said, I've proven myself more in the Classics. I beat him in the sprint at Milan-San Remo in the last three years and so deciding who sprints there could be a problem. We'll see on the day.
CN: You seem very fair about it all. Other sprinters, with bigger egos, would not be like that.
AK: I'm just very realistic. I know he's going to improve, while I'm over 30 and not getting any younger, and now I'm only trying to keep the strength I have. That's just how nature works. That's life.
It's not an ideal situation for me. I could hope he has a bad season or that he gets injured. But that's not nice. I actually hope he wins a lot of races and so takes the pressure off the whole team. For sure, it's not going to be easy for him. He's changed teams and doesn't have the same lead-out and help in the finale, so it could be difficult. Look at Kittel after he left Quick-Step Floors for Katusha-Alpecin. Changing teams shows how good you really are. For sure, Gaviria can win. He's shown that and won before, even before he turned professional.
I'll do the work the team asks of me and we'll see what happens. I like it here and feel at home here, and I'm open to continuing with the team after 2019 if I still get opportunities to win races.