Luca Paolini's career has been bookended by his work in the service of others. As a youngster at Mapei and QuickStep, he struck up a special understanding with Paolo Bettini and is now replicating that kind of chemistry with Alexander Kristoff during his Indian summer at Katusha.
Speaking at Katusha's pre-Tour of Flanders press conference in Kortrijk on Friday, however, Paolini admitted that working for Kristoff has proved a little more straightforward than being a foil to his fellow countryman and close personal friend.
"My understanding with both of them has been excellent but they're two completely different riders," Paolini said. "With Alex, the important thing is to keep him sheltered until the sprint. It was totally different with Bettini. With Paolo, it was so unpredictable, because he could make an attack 100km from the finish and that could put me in difficulty, but with Alex it's a lot easier."
Paolini piloted Bettini to Milan-San Remo victory in 2003 and was the best supporting actor during Kristoff's win 12 months ago, before almost repeating the feat once again this time around. Yet although there is a sandwich named after him in the café at the Ronde van Vlaanderen museum in Oudenaarde – the Pollo Bettini, in case you're wondering – Bettini never tasted success at the Tour of Flanders.
Kristoff, on the other hand, lines up in Bruges this Sunday as one of the outstanding favourites, having claimed a hat-trick of stage wins and overall victory at the Three Days of De Panne, and having finished fourth and fifth in the Ronde in the past two years.
Although Paolini claimed victory at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday after soloing across to the winning move with Kristoff's blessing, he insisted that the Norwegian would be Katusha’s sole leader for the Tour of Flanders.
"We have a big advantage, in that we don't have to drop anyone or make a big show of strength. I think Alex has shown that he is the strongest sprinter at the end of a big classic. We only have to stay close to him and bring him as close to the finish without expending too much energy," Paolini said, before theatrically turning to Kristoff to seek his approval: "Ok?"
For his part, Kristoff was happy to acknowledge that he is one of the principal contenders for Tour of Flanders victory, though, not for the first time and with his defeat to John Degenkolb on the Via Roma in mind, he stressed that he would not be unbeatable in the event of a sprint finish in Oudenaarde.
"I see myself as one of the favourites but not the only one," Kristoff said. "People can beat me when I'm tired, I showed that in San Remo. A lot of people can win in a group because there will be a lot of tired legs, but for sure I'm one of the guys who can win."
Kristoff's Milan-San Remo victory last year seemed to mark a giant leap forward in his career and he has begun the 2015 campaign on a high, clocking up nine wins already. He insisted, however, that his has been a steady progression rather than a sudden explosion.
"Well, first people said the Olympic medal [bronze in London in 2012 – ed.] was a breakthrough, so everything is a breakthrough," Kristoff smiled. "Last year I was not that much better than the year before, but you saw it way more in my results and you see it with good results this year too. When I compare it to two years ago, I'm riding better in training but not by a lot. But it's a small margin at the top level."
The Three Days of De Panne is not the Tour of Flanders, of course, but in defending his overall lead with a forceful third place in the final time trial, Kristoff seemed to suggest that he has reached another level of performance this spring.
"I feel from my time trial that I'm probably stronger than last year and that gives me confidence for the classics to come," he admitted. "I am where I should be, but still it's hard to win a race even if you're on top condition because of the quality of the other riders. A lot has to go your way if you are to win a monument."
While, ostensibly, the flat pavé Paris-Roubaix ought to suit Kristoff better than the hills of the Tour of Flanders, he voiced a preference for the latter. Both races required strength to last into the finale, but racing in Flanders, as he sees it, involves "less bingo." And curiously, like some other sprinters in the past, including Frédéric Moncassin, Kristoff finds that cobbles somehow help to make a hill more palatable.
"They are all hard, but actually on the cobbled climbs I don't feel too bad, and I even like them better than flat cobbles," he said. "Of course it's hard on the Paterberg and Kwaremont but everybody is suffering, so it's not only me. Actually I like it more and more over the years."
Fifteenth in 2012, fourth in 2013 and within metres of catching the winning break last year, Kristoff seems to drawing ever closer.
"Alex demonstrated in De Panne that he's super," Paolini said. "He's my captain and we'll ride for him."
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