After claiming victory on stage 2 of the Tour of Qatar on Tuesday afternoon and accepting the congratulations of UCI president Brian Cookson at the podium, Alexander Kristoff received further good tidings from the UCI that evening, when its disciplinary commission confirmed that Katusha would not be sanctioned as a team for recording two positive anti-doping tests within the past twelve months.
Kristoff had arrived in Qatar concerned that his Katusha squad would be barred from taking the start in the wake of Eduard Vorganov’s recent positive test for meldonium, and up until the UCI communique landed on Tuesday evening, a possible suspension of up to 45 days lingered over the team.
“Sure, it was relief. It was the decision I was hoping for, for the team, and of course we are happy with the decision, but if they had made another decision, we would also have accepted that,” Kristoff said after completing the stage 3 time trial on Wednesday. “It was all up to the UCI commission to decide this.”
Although Kristoff and Katusha had contingency plans for a training camp in mind in the event that the team was prevented from racing in the coming weeks, the Norwegian was adamant that speculation over the UCI disciplinary commission’s eventual decision had not been a distraction, as testified by Tuesday’s sprint victory at Qatar University ahead of Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data).
“I was ready to focus just on my race. I was prepared for that,” Kristoff said. “Ok, if we were told we could not do that, then we would do something else. But now we are here and I didn’t really think too much about it.”
Kristoff lived up to his billing as the pre-race favourite for the Tour of Qatar with a strong showing in the crosswinds on day one and his stage win the following day, but after losing almost a minute to fellow countryman Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) in Wednesday’s stage 3 time trial, he acknowledged that his hopes of final overall victory have all but disappeared.
“We will not try to take the overall now,” said Kristoff, who now lies fifth overall, 45 seconds off Boasson Hagen’s gold jersey and 19 seconds down on the second-placed Cavendish.
“Ok if he misses the split, then anything could happen. But there’s really only one more day in which to do something and I think he has a pretty big lead, so taking control of it would be hard.”
Kristoff admitted to being disappointed with his own 15th place finish in the 11.4-kilometre time trial at Lusail, even though he lost less time than he had done on the corresponding stage a year ago. In the modern era, for a man with Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix on his mind, the February figures that count are expressed in Watts rather than in seconds.
“I knew I would not win the time trial but I was hoping to do a little better. I was actually a little better on this time trial last year, like maybe ten watts better, so I was a little bit disappointed,” Kristoff said. “But I was not too far away from what I was expecting. A little bit underachieving maybe, but sometimes it’s like this.
“[The difference] wasn’t a lot, but a little bit. I was trying to keep it at 450 Watts, but I couldn’t hold it, and I exploded a little bit at the end. But that’s how it is.”
As Kristoff eased into a deck chair by the Katusha team car and downed a recovery drink, directeur sportif Torsten Schmidt looked to raise his spirits. “You’ll be better tomorrow, hey,” he said gently, though Kristoff did not have the bearing of a man who required such a pep talk.
“I train more or less the same, and in training I was actually better this year than last year,” Kristoff said when asked if his power output on Wednesday was a reflection of his off-season work.
“I think some days you just have better legs than other days. Maybe it was a bit of a worse day [than last year] but ten watts is a not huge amount, not a big difference.”
And Milan-San Remo, in any case, is still almost 40 days away. A worrying timeframe 24 hours previously, perhaps, but a more reassuring one on Wednesday.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.