Pedal stroke for pedal stroke, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) continues to keep pace with his 2015 self. After matching last year’s haul of three stage wins at the Tour of Qatar, he continued his successful Gulf campaign on Thursday by landing stage 3 of the Tour of Oman, just as he did twelve months ago.
“I have exactly the same amount of wins that I had at this time last year,” Kristoff noted afterwards, adding with a considerable degree of understatement: “Last year I had a good season. So I’ll hope again for this year.”
With Marcel Kittel and André Greipel currently locking horns in Portugal, and with Tour of Qatar winner Mark Cavendish preparing for the World Track Championships, Kristoff is, by some distance, the sprinter with the finest pedigree in Oman this week, but he dismissed the idea that his win was of any less value because of it.
“Wins are wins and at the end everyone is counting, saying ‘16 wins is worse than 20 last year’ or something, so this counts also,” Kristoff said. “It’s not a small race, it’s a hors categorie race and there are good riders here, good sprinters, it counts for something.
“There’s still [Andrea] Guardini, [Sam] Bennett’s not slow, he won the last stage in Qatar last year, and there are other sprinters too. So there are still fast guys here and I still have to go at my maximum to beat these guys.”
Kristoff’s maximum here was enough to carry him home by the proverbial street ahead of Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Roy Jans (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) at Naseem Park, though he stressed that the winning margin had been deceptive.
After losing Kristoff’s regular lead-out man Jacopo Guarnieri to a puncture in the finale, Katusha had to hastily reassign roles on the hoof in the closing kilometres, with Marco Haller taking a mammoth turn to allow Michael Mørkøv step into the role of last man.
“With the puncture at the end we were a little bit scared because Jacopo is usually the last guy but in the end, the other guys did an incredible job to fix it. I was happy when we hit the front with 500 metres, I knew it would be hard to pass us,” Kristoff said.
“Even [Jurgen] Van Den Broeck was pulling at the end so the whole team was contributing when we lost Jacopo. Marco Haller did work of two men, and then Mørjøv kept the speed really high and fast for me.”
Kristoff’s stock rose quickly on swapping BMC for Katusha ahead of the 2012 season, but as recently as two years ago, his status was such that he considered by some as surprise winner of Milan-San Remo. After his remarkable spring campaign of 2015, Kristoff has become increasingly familiar with the role of outright favourite, and shows no signs of carrying that pressure as a burden.
“I need to get used to it, there are many races where I will be favourite,” he said. “When the fastest sprinters are all there, then I’m usually not the fastest. You see Kittel is back, Greipel has beaten me a lot of times, also Cavendish, so there will be many guys who can beat me in the sprint. Here I was the fastest usually and that meant we had the pressure today.”
On the evidence of Kristoff’s season to date, he will again line up as the man to beat at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, though he was happy to downplay his chances in his first European race of the season, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which takes place a week from Saturday.
“It’s not really the main goal for me and I’ve actually never been good there,” Kristoff said. “But maybe this year I’ll be better I hope.”
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