At this stage in the game, Alexander Kristoff knows his way around the Flemish Ardennes. While some of his Katusha-Alpecin teammates went to reconnoitre the Kwaremont and Paterberg ahead of E3 Harelbeke, the Norwegian opted for a shorter ride following his arrival at the team's Classics base, the Park Hotel in Kortrijk, on Thursday morning.
As well as the roads, Kristoff knows his own best route the day of days, the Tour of Flanders. While most of his rivals will rest in the week that follows Gent-Wevelgem, Kristoff will, yet again, prepare for the Ronde amid the cut and thrust of the Three Days of De Panne. The approach has served him well in years past, and he sees no reason to change.
"My body needs a little bit of beating up to get ready. It's not like I can relax and get ready, I'm not built that way," Kristoff told Cyclingnews. "Some people can have an easier approach and arrive in good shape, but I need to be really pushed hard and get really tired, and then after two days of rest, I'm there."
Winner of the Tour of Flanders in 2015, Kristoff has never quite replicated that form in the dress rehearsals of E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. "Usually at these two races this weekend, I was never so good, but maybe I can change that this year," he said. "I am here and the shape is quite good, but usually I need a bit more of these types of races to really come in the rhythm. Every year I use these two races and De Panne to be good in Flanders, but hopefully I manage to show myself a little bit tomorrow also."
Kristoff arrives in Belgium following a series of performances largely in line with his early-season form over the preceding three years, as he clocked up a hat-trick of stage wins at the Tour of Oman. For the third time in five years, Kristoff proceeded to win the bunch sprint at the end of Milan-San Remo, though as in 2013, he was competing for a minor placing rather than the victory. Even so, he came away from La Classicissima with few regrets.
"Well, it was the first time I won the sprint on Via Roma, because I won on the harbour [the previous finish at the Lungomare Italo Calvino – ed.] before," Kristoff pointed out. "I won't say I'm disappointed because I did everything I could. I wasn't dropped on the Poggio, whereas in other years I was sometimes distanced a little bit. This year we went really fast and I managed to hold the group."
Amid the tumult of the frenetic swoop down the Poggio, Kristoff was only vaguely aware that the winning trio of Michal Kwiatkowski, Peter Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe were still up the road. It was only as he lined up for his final effort on the Via Roma that he realised he was sprinting for fourth place.
"I didn't even know they were in front until I looked up with 500 metres to go, because at that point, you're not really paying attention to the radio," Kristoff said. "It wouldn't have changed anything, and maybe it was for the best, because I was maybe more focused for the sprint."
On the face of it, Kristoff's Milan-San Remo showing augurs well for his prospects in Belgium and northern France over the next fortnight, but the Norwegian warned against making projections for the cobbles based on performances on the Riviera.
"It's not really the same race. San Remo is not so difficult, I feel," Kristoff said. "Although this time, it was hard. Other years when there's been a little bit of bad weather, it's been a bit easier on the climbs because people were more tired. For me, it was almost harder this year because we went faster on the climbs which is my weak point. The way I look at it, my shape is pretty good because I managed to follow at that speed up those climbs."
One man who had a different gear to – almost – everybody else on the Poggio was world champion Peter Sagan, although, not for the first time, Michal Kwiatkowski proceeded to demonstrate that the Slovak is far from unbeatable. No matter, Sagan will line out as the prohibitive favourite in Harelbeke on Friday and again at the Tour of Flanders next week.
"There's not so much I can do to make him weaker, you know. I'm not really thinking too much about it," Kristoff said of Sagan. "For sure, he has a good sprint but he lost last weekend. He is good in every aspect of this sport. He can climb better than me and he can do a good sprint. I just have to fight to be in the front group. I know it's possible to beat him in a sprint even if he's a good sprinter. Then it's more about legs and who has more energy left.
"For sure, Sagan starts with more energy than me, but maybe he uses more during the race with attacks and stuff. Maybe if I save during the day, I have more energy at the end. But I don't really think just about him. There are other teams and riders. Quick-Step looked strong yesterday. There are many teams to beat."
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