When it comes to the classics, unlike bunch sprints, riders often underline the importance of having 'options' - multiple cards to play in races that are as open as they come - and Tony Martin and Alexander Kristoff believe they've struck on the perfect partnership at Katusha-Alpecin.
Kristoff has already won Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders in the red jersey of the Russian team, but this year he will share leadership with Martin, who has joined after a cobbled apprenticeship of sorts at Quick-Step last spring.
"It's a really good combination. Alex is more the sprinter, waiting for the sprints, and I'm more the aggressive rider going a bit earlier," Martin explained to Cyclingnews in Kortrijk on Thursday, just after completing a recon of the last 60 kilometres of Friday's E3-Harelbeke.
"I can go, and he can wait and save energy. If it comes together I can work for him, but I can always gamble a bit, and say 'I have Alex back there'. We'll see how it plays out, but on paper it looks like a really good strategy."
Kristoff and Martin raced alongside each other for the first time at the 'opening weekend' of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne at the end of February. On paper, it didn't go well at all, with Kristoff crashing out of the former and Martin the latter, but each saw enough of the other to be full of confidence for the next couple of weeks.
"I didn't actually have much of a relation with him before – we said hello and congratulations for victories, as you do, but I didn't know him well," said Martin. "Coming here he was really open, frankly. I really like him. It's a really good relationship. We still have to grow, as always, but it's been half a year now, and we've done some races together now."
As for Kristoff, he has no issues whatsoever with having to share a leadership role of which he was in sole possession over the past couple of seasons.
"From what I saw from him on the opening weekend, he was better than me there," Kristoff told Cyclingnews after completing a brief ride of his own, shortly after touching down on Belgian soil.
"I expect him to be there in the finales. He's strong, he has a big engine. He can and should be there. So it's up to me and the other guys to place ourselves right and be there with him. I think if I'm there at the end, for sure he will ride for me because I have a better sprint and I can finish that group off, but if we are there two together, he can make attacks himself because if Tony gets a gap he's hard to close, even for Sagan. He can be a card to play and hopefully we get some opportunities to play this card."
Martin's new direction
Martin, now 31, has spent the bulk of his career as a time triallist, ticking off numerous races against the clock in Grand Tours and other stage races, and becoming a four-time world champion in the discipline.
However, his victory on the cobbled stage of the 2015 Tour de France, which covered some of the pavé used in Paris-Roubaix, signalled a new direction in his career, and at Quick-Step last spring he rode the cobbled classics for the first time.
"It's different – it's more action-packed [than time trialling]. I'm a little bit more excited now to come here. You never know what's coming up in the classics. It's cool, and a new motivation for me in my career," he added.
"It's a big change but in the end if I can make a gap to other riders, then my time trial experience and power will be an advantage. I hope it's a good combination. Cancellara also showed you can really transform from time triallist into classics rider. The power in the TT can be a big advantage here."
It's for that reason that Martin says Paris-Roubaix suits him better than the Tour of Flanders, and it's hard to argue after the pivotal role he played in driving a relatively early but utterly decisive selection clear. That said, he has made small changes to his training that are designed to help him adapt to the explosiveness demanded by the Flemish Ardennes, where selections are often formed on the short steep climbs.
"I've tried to train a bit more intensively to simulate the important parts of the classics – doing more sprints, more efforts, seven-hour rides to get the distance into the legs, which I never used to do," said Martin.
"I feel comfortable I can survive and handle the steep climbs. When the legs are good I can do well there. But maybe I have to go on the attack on the flat cobbled sections."
Quick-Step live and breathe the classics, and there are probably as many potential winners there as there races over this period, so Martin was deployed exclusively as a workhorse last spring. But his performances gave him the belief that the cobbles are a natural fit, and that, handed a leadership role at another team, he could deliver.
"The next step is to go for my own result," he said. "Last year I was riding for the team and happy to be at the front supporting someone like Tom [Boonen] at Paris-Roubaix. I did well in most of the races and that gave me a lot of confidence that I'm able to handle the cobbles.
"Now this year I'll be one of the captains, so I'll have a little bit more of an easy ride beforehand hopefully, and I can save energy for the final. I'm confident. This is the next step. I have full support from the team, and now we see how far I can go."
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