Alexander Kristoff says that having Tony Martin alongside him at this weekend's Tour of Flanders will give the Katusha-Alpecin team 'another dimension' in comparison to previous years. Kristoff has shouldered the burden of the team's Classics ambitions in the past, but he and Martin will be given equal status on Sunday.
With both having two very different skillsets on the bike, Kristoff says that the team will have to play a canny tactical game to keep them both in contention as late as possible into the race. "For sure, we have two protected riders for the final, and we know more or less that it's him and me that will be the guys that will survive. And the other guys will have to sacrifice so that we are less tired in the final," Kristoff told a group of journalists at the team's hotel just outside of Antwerp.
"He's more of the offensive type that can go away on attacks. For me, it's better that the group stays together, but for [Martin] it is better that he goes alone. He brings a new dimension to the team that he can attack and we don't always have to try and bring it back together; we can also go away. We will see in the situation what will benefit us the most because sometimes for me it's better if the climbs are easier but maybe for Tony it is different. We must figure out a smart way to race, so we have the most chances to win at the end."
Kristoff has said several times this week that he feels he's below the level that he would ordinarily like heading into the Tour of Flanders. He dismissed himself as one of the of the favourites for the weekend, but hoped that he could nudge himself a little further in the right direction with a strong performance at the Three Days of De Panne. He finished well on Thursday with second place in the morning stage and a strong time trial performance that put him third at just two seconds behind Luke Durbridge. There are still some concerns for the Norwegian, but he is feeling better about his prospects than before.
"On the first day I was dropped by Gilbert on the Muur and that is a bit worrying because we are going to be doing a lot of climbing in Flanders and the race is normally decided on the climbs. I know that I have a small weakness there," he said. "I hope that I will be won one or two per cent better than I was on the first stage of De Panne and maybe it's just enough to follow in the climbs. If I'm good enough to follow then I'm strong enough to get a big result.
"If I can follow any moves like I did with Terpstra and to be in front on the Kwaremont or Paterberg then that would be ideal, but usually at the end of a hard race I can handle these climbs. It's not vital for success, but it would be perfect if I could make it but, for sure, there would be many other guys who want to get into this group, so it's easier said than done."
Kristoff is an old hat at the Tour of Flanders, having already ridden it five times before. For Martin, it will only be his second appearance after taking the plunge into the cobbled Classics following his victory on the pavé at the 2015 Tour de France. Last year was a learning expedition as he helped out his more experienced teammates. This year, he has his eyes on the bigger prize.
"I'm more confident. I know what is coming up so I can be more focused on the specific things that I know will be important," he explained. "Last year I didn't really know what was coming up. I did a lot of recons but to be in Flanders and then Roubaix a week later it is totally different so I learned a lot, I got a lot of experience from last year. I can maybe set a better plan for myself because last year I was going in not really knowing. Now I know how the race goes and that helps."
Martin's pathway through the Classics has been far from easy with heavy crashes at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Gent-Wevelgem. He received some stitches to his head after the Kuurne excursion but avoided anything too serious. Martin's tale mirrors the Katusha teams turmoil throughout the Classics campaign. Kristoff himself has been involved in a crash and suffered from mechanical problems over the weekend too.
Luck will play a big factor on Sunday, says Martin, if they hope to get the better of the pre-race favourites.
"Everyone is talking about Sagan and Van Avermaet. The guys showed in the last days that they are far in front compared to the other riders but at Flanders, you also need to be lucky," said Martin. "You have to have the right strategy, and you have to have a strong team. To be the big favourite is one thing but I think all the other riders will have chances, especially if you ride smart. We believe in ourselves, and we don't give up. We won't look to other riders, and we will also participate in the race and not just follow."