Towards the end of last season, when Fernando Gaviria was announced as a UAE Team Emirates rider, Alexander Kristoff came out and said he hoped his paymasters didn't see him as simply as a lead-out man for the Colombian, otherwise he'd be a rather expensive support rider. With the new season underway, and with a customary win at the Tour of Oman in the bag, Kristoff appears resigned to working for Gaviria in bunch sprints, but has staked his own quiet claim to leadership in the spring classics.
Kristoff opened his season at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana last week and won the opening stage in Oman on Saturday, while Gaviria has started in South America, winning a stage at the Vuelta a San Juan but abandoning the Tour Colombia through illness.
The pair, however, are set to race together for the first time at the UAE Tour later this month, and they'll combine over the course of the one-day races in the spring, and then at the Tour de France in July.
Even after his win in a pan-flat tailwind sprint in Oman, Kristoff is happy to admit Gaviria has the edge when it comes to pure speed, and seems to have accepted his position lower down the hierarchy.
"I won't have the same amount of chances to win sprints. I took one chance last year [at the Tour] so I showed I can still perform in the sprint, but he performs more often than me," Kristoff said in Oman.
"I get more 5th places than victories, and maybe he gets more victories than 5th places, so the team had to decide. They want to win races, of course, and we have to work together for this aim of the team. That's life.
"I think he is a faster guy, so I think I'll need to help for many days compared to how many he has to help me. So it's not perfect for me. But that's life. I'm getting older and, usually, you get slower with age, so I'll do my best to help him as much as possible."
Kristoff may be resigned to sacrificing his own chances in bunch sprints, but he remains fiercely determined to fight for his own success where he can, particularly in the spring classics.
Gaviria has been touted as a future classics star, even though he has yet to make the expected impact in the Belgian one-day races. Kristoff, by contrast, is a former winner of both Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, and is one of the high-pedigree Classics riders, even if he has endured disappointing spring campaigns in the past couple of years.
"I need to focus where I have chances to win. I still have ambitions, and maybe I will get most of my chances in the Classics," he said.
"Normally, on the easier days, Gaviria is the faster rider. If you have a normal flat stage, he will be the guy we ride for because his leg speed is faster than mine. Even though I won on the Champs Elysées last year, if he was there maybe he'd have won. But on the harder days - also in Belgium - I think it's going to be slightly different. He still hasn't beaten me in Milan-San Remo yet, where everyone is very tired."
That said, Kristoff acknowledges that "one day he will beat me in San Remo", admitting that Gaviria's star is very much still on the rise, while his own powers, while not necessarily in decline, are not likely to improve as he nears his 32nd birthday.
"He's on his way up, and I'm maybe on my top. You're not getting faster with age, I'm turning 32 this year, so we'll see how long I'm fast.
"Maybe on max power I feel a little bit less than few years ago, but that's for 10-second power, and it's not a big difference. For longer intervals it's at least the same as before, so it's not like I'm any weaker, in the Classics, for example."
Winning start in Oman
Kristoff insisted he didn't need to prove himself to his bosses, but nevertheless acknowledged the timeliness of his first win of the season.
Gaviria had already won at the Vuelta a San Juan, and also Jasper Philipsen at the Tour Down Under and Sebastian Molano at the Tour Colombia, meaning Kristoff was the only remaining UAE Team Emirates sprinter yet to get off the mark. It's only mid-February and the team are now a third of the way to their 2018 victory tally.
"The other sprinters in our team already performed so it was about time I won a race," Kristoff said.
"I'm happy, of course, to win early in the season - that gives confidence. UAE have had a really good start, and I'm happy I also opened my personal account."
Kristoff's love affair with the Tour of Oman goes on. He is the joint-record holder for participations at the Middle Eastern race, having lined up at nine of the 10 editions so far, and the leader when it comes to stage wins. This was his eighth in six years, and you'd have to go back to 2013 to find an edition where he didn't taste success.
"I like it here, I have good memories here. I've won many stages and I've won Classics with this preparation. It has worked before and there's no need to change it," he said. "It's nice, the atmosphere is good and there's not too much stress, but the racing is hard when it matters. It's a nice way to get prepared and also have a small fight with Michael Schar, who also does it ever year, so we are fighting to have the most starts here."
Kristoff will head to the UAE Tour after Oman for what will, for the second year in a row, be a three-week stint in the Middle East - a sort of desert Grand Tour - ahead of the Classics. Last year, though, he found the racing in Dubai and Abu Dhabi lacked intensity, and his spring preparation was further compromised by illness at Paris-Nice.
Kristoff revealed he wanted to skip the UAE Tour and head to the opening weekend - Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in Belgium - at the start of March, but that his team said no.
"I would have like to do opening weekend, actually, to get into the Belgian racing mode and prepare for the Classics, but for the team the UAE Tour is very important with the sponsor and they want the best possible team there," he said.
"This year they combined Dubai and Abu Dhabi so there's a bit less time here and one extra climbing stage so I hope it's going to be ok, and if there's one day with wind it'll be super hard and that makes a difference.
"For sure I will help Fernando if he's healthy. It's not a bad idea to work together before the Tour. It's not a bad idea for the team, but for me personally I would have preferred Belgium."
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