Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) starts Milan-San Remo wearing race number one after winning in 2014. He is arguably the favourite amongst the many contenders for this year’s race due to his ability to handle the late climbs and then produce a long powerful sprint in Via Roma.
Last year he beat Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Ben Swift (Team Sky) Juan Jose Lobato (Movistar) and Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quickstep) after a group of 25 riders formed after the Poggio. He timed his sprint perfectly and charged down the middle of the road to win by more than a bike length. It was only his third Milan-San Remo but he seemed perfect for the race.
Just 24 hours before hoping to repeat the same finish, Kristoff was cool and collected as he spoke to the media, his Norwegian character stronger than the emotions of riding the first big Classic of the season. Of course riding as the last winner will make for a special day.
“It’s a special race because it was my first big monument win, that makes it special,” he explained. “I did it three times before: I’ve won it once and another time I was in the top ten, so I’ve always had a good feeling in this race and I hope to continue that tomorrow.”
Kristoff again rode Paris-Nice to prepare for Milan-San Remo, winning stage one ahead of Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and Bryan Coquard (Europcar). He has won five races this year, including three stages at the Tour of Qatar.
“I won last year and I’ve had a good start, so I must expect to be amongst the favourites,” he said. “But Milan-San Remo is a wide open race, so many guys can win in different ways. You can win it in a sprint, as I did, you can go away in a small group on the Poggio or even before. That means there are a lot of favourites, maybe 20 riders can win tomorrow.
“I’m quite confident for a sprint finish but there are other fast guys too. Cavendish beat me in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne this year and he has a lot of victories too. Sagan won a Tirreno-Adriatico stage. There’s also (Michael) Matthews, who won in Paris-Nice.
Katusha, Cofidis, and Orica-GreenEdge will all be riding for a sprint finish but Kristoff knows there are others who will be desperate to drop him on the Poggio.
“BMC could make it a hard race, Sagan is strong on the climbs too, so he can go away and make it a hard race and try to win the sprint from a small group,” he warned.
“Etixx-QuickStep has Cavendish but they also have other strong guys who can attack. There’s also guys like Cancellara, so there are a lot of riders who want a hard race but others who want to wait for the sprint. Degenkolb hasn’t been mentioned much but he was there until he punctured. He’s good in a race like this.
“If an attack goes on the Poggio, it’s a critical moment, so you’ve got to try and follow it as much as you can. You’ve got to stay near the front as much as possible. If the strongest guys get away, I’ll perhaps struggle to follow them. But we’ll see how I am. Maybe I’ll have a super day and can follow them. But it depends on how the other guys are.”
Counting on Paolini and a solid Katusha team
Kristoff emerged as Katusha’s team leader for the Classics and sprints. The Russian squad has quietly built a strong, experienced unit around him, adding Jacopo Guarnieri from Astana for lead-outs and fast finishes.
Also in the Katusha line-up for Milan-San Remo are Marco Haller, Alexandr Kolobnev, Dmitry Kozonchuk, Sergey Lagutin, Luca Paolini and Gatis Smukulis. The red-bearded Paolini is now 38 but is still a respected road captain. He helped Paolo Bettini win Milan-San Remo back in 2003, finished on the podium in 2006 and has also finished fifth in 2013, before playing a key role in Kristoff’s win last year.
“I hope Luca (Paolini) will be there for sure and perhaps one other guy too. It’d be good to have them there to help me, support me and keep the race together,” Kristoff said of his teammates.
“If I’m alone, it’s more difficult but Luca is usually strong and will be there unless he has a technical problem. He’s important for getting me into position and leading me out in the sprint.”
Kristoff still lives in Stavanger in Norway and won in terrible conditions in 2014 and so shrugged off the idea that the rain and cold could be a problem on Sunday. He also sees little difference between sprinting along the Italo Calvino seafront and up the Via Roma. Rain was expected in San Remo but the latest forecasts suggest strong winds but dry conditions.
“It seems the weather looks like it will be better than in the last few years, so maybe it’ll be sunny in San Remo. I’m confident about our equipment, so it doesn’t matter if it rains or not,” he said. “Normally it’s easier to keep the race together in the dry because the peloton can split on wet descents.
“If the sprint is the same as last year, I honestly don’t think they’ll be any difference. I was already well-positioned and that would have been the case in Via Roma. It all depends on Poggio and before. If someone gets a gap, it’s one kilometre shorter but I don’t think it will have a big effect. Thought I do think it’s cool to be back on the old finish.
“Milan-San Remo is not such a difficult race, but it’s long, it’s the hours on the bike that make it special. You get more tired at Roubaix or Flanders but at San Remo, you sit on the bike for hours and the speed is fast and that gradually makes you tired. That means everyone is tired when we start the Cipressa. Mid-race they’re not a problem but after 300km they’re hard. Milan-San Remo is all about saving energy.”
As last year’s winner, with five wins already on his 2015 palmares, his contract with Katusha secure and all the spring Classics ahead of him, Kristoff does not feel under pressure to win Milan-San Remo.
“I’ll try to do the best I can and if it’s good enough I’ll win,” he said, showing little emotion. “I don’t think I’m the guy who has to attack to win. I have to survive and then sprint, so I don’t have to do anything special. I know this race, know my level and what I did this season makes me confident I can do the job.”
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