Alexander Kristoff admitted to being worried by his form after E3-Harelbeke, where he finished 27th in the second main group on the road, offering no excuses other than his legs were simply "not strong enough." A couple of days on, he received some small reassurances, even if he finished way down in 73rd place at Gent-Wevelgem.
Kristoff punctured coming off the third and final section of Plugstreets – the gravel roads that were introduced to the race for the first time with around 60km to go – but his wheel change was slow and there were splits up ahead. He chased alone for several kilometres, but when the race exploded on the second ascent of the Kemmelberg, he was still some way down the approach road to the climb, and it was clear his day was done.
"I punctured right at a bad moment - there wasn't so much I could do about it," Kristoff told Cyclingnews outside the Katusha-Alpecin team bus.
"I felt good but what can I do when I puncture just at the end of the gravel when the race is really on? I tried really hard to come back, but even though I felt I had good power it was going to be hard. When I caught back up with the cars, actually, they then stopped the cars, so I had trouble there, too."
Despite circumstances robbing him of the chance to provide any concrete answers to the doubts that emerged at Harelbeke, the 29-year-old nevertheless saw more than a glimpse of promise, with the all-important Tour of Flanders coming up next Sunday. Kristoff will ride this week's Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde to clock up some extra racing kilometres before the big day.
"I felt better today – actually quite good," he added. "With the puncture at that moment, I know anyway in my best shape I don't have a chance. I couldn't have done anything differently today. It's a pity because I think I could have been there fighting for a good result.
"I'm not too worried. I feel I'm on the right way, and I hope next week will be more lucky. The result is not there, so that's obviously a concern, but the legs are ok."
Martin ready to go 'full gas again' at the Tour of Flanders
Katusha-Alpecin came into the cobbled classics campaign full of optimism about the way Kristoff - a former Flanders winner - could combine with new signing Tony Martin, who showed his potential in these races while at Quick-Step last season. Two races in, however, they have little to show for it, with no victories and no presence in the decisive selections.
Kristoff said that Martin looked stronger than him at the opening weekend of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last month, and that was the case at E3, where Martin missed the split but was a prominent force in the chase and finished with the first main group.
The German looked good again on Sunday, attacking on the first ascent of the Banenberg, but, like Kristoff, his day was ended by bad luck as he was caught in a crash ahead of the second ascent. In fact, he hit the deck only several kilometres after Kristoff's puncture, meaning Katusha's hopes wiped out in a flash.
"After 200km two guys in front of me crashed hard and I had no space to avoid them and ended up on the ground myself. Then my race was over," said Martin, who looked for a minute like he wouldn't get back on his bike.
"I hit some bones really hard so at first I didn't know if it was serious or not," he explained. "But after two or three minutes the shock was gone and I felt better so I could get back on the bike and finish the race. I'm still disappointed. It's just some skin's gone, but actually my condition is okay. Now for recovery and on Sunday full gas again."