This weekend, Alexander Kristoff returns to Opening Weekend for the first time since 2017. The UAE Team Emirates sprinter heads back to Belgium straight from the south of Portugal and two fourth-placed sprint finishes at the Volta ao Algarve.
The Norwegian, who fell victim to an unfortunate crash after the finish of stage 4 on Alto do Malhão, was in good spirits during the final day of the race in Lagoa. After finishing his time trial effort, Kristoff told Cyclingnews he doesn't necessarily expect to repeat past strong performances at the races – runner-up spots at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in 2015 and 2016.
"I'm not really ready for it," he said after ending his race on the 20km course. "From what I remember about what I've done before at these races, I was usually quite far back. It comes a bit early for me normally – usually, I need some extra races to get ready.
"I'm not too worried if I'm not up there, though. Hopefully, I can be there, especially in Kuurne, which is a bit of an easier race. We also have Jasper [Philipsen] there, so maybe if I'm a bit tired we can go for him because he'll only do Kuurne."
A day earlier, Kristoff had a lucky escape from a crash that might've ruined his spring. While descending Malhão back to the team bus, a child ran into the road, inadvertently taking Kristoff out.
The 32-year-old came away with a sore wrist, a thigh injury and wounds, but soldiered on to finish the race on Sunday and will be healthy enough to compete at the weekend.
"I went down to the buses like normal in the middle of the road," Kristoff said. "Then suddenly, a kid ran straight into the road and I didn't manage to stop in time. I tried to come around; that's why I hit the side of my leg, and I flew over the bike and the kid.
"I rolled a little bit down and got some wounds on all sides of my body. Nothing is broken but my wrist is a bit sore. There was some muscle damage to my right thigh, too. It's quite painful but I think it's going to heal quite nicely.
"For sure, I was a bit scared of how it went with the small kid because normally the person who gets hit comes out worse. But what I heard is that she was fine with a broken front tooth but otherwise OK."
Although Opening Weekend is too far from the big races of cobbled Classics to serve as a form signifier, the races can still be important for confidence as the big ones draw ever closer.
Kristoff, who will ride Paris-Nice in the build-up, usually comes away with a big result regardless, winning the Tour of Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs, Driedaagse De Panne and Eschborn-Frankfurt (four times) in the past six seasons.
He's happy with where he is again this time, in the mix at Algarve and ready to hit top form later on.
"Training-wise, I think it's been good," Kristoff said. "For sure, we hoped for a victory – me and Rui [Costa] were fourth or fifth every day. But at least I was up there in the mix, so hopefully, I can improve it for the races to come.
"I hope to be there like last year. I was good, winning Wevelgem and taking third in Flanders. If I can do something similar then I'll be very happy, of course."
This year – after the disastrous 2019 Paris-Roubaix which saw him puncture multiple times – Kristoff is racing on the Colnago V3Rs after using the Colnago Concept last spring. The difference? Tyre clearance. The Norwegian says he used 26mm tyres last April, the reason for his bad luck in Roubaix.
"Now I've trained up to now on the climbing frame and will use it in Roubaix. It has a bigger tyre clearance and it's probably a better Classics bike, too. Last year, I couldn't fit more than a 26mm tyre, which is fine for the Belgian Classics, but Roubaix cobbles are worse.
"Now, for sure I can get a 28mm tyre, but I asked for 30mm just to be safer."
What won't change for 2020 is Kristoff's successful partnership with Fernando Gaviria. In the past, the Colombian has spoken of his desire to target the spring Classics, and last year the pair worked together to take victory at Gent-Wevelgem.
"I think both me and Fernando will have open cards," Kristoff said. "Usually it's always good to have more of us in the final like we saw last year in Wevelgem. Everybody thought we'd go for him, but he told me to go for myself because he was a little tired.
"Then the opponents went for his wheel, but he sat up, I got a small gap going away, so it can always be useful to have more of us, also to cover moves and work in the final."
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