Kristoff's quest is complicated somewhat by the fact that injuries and conflicts with other events mean he's at the race without a dedicated lead-out train, going up against a sprint field that includes most of the best in the world.
"I don't really have a lead-out here," Kristoff told Cyclingnews Saturday evening. "I have Sven [Erik Bystrom] and [Filippo] Ganna, which can help me until the last kilometre maybe, but the last K I will be by myself.
"I don't really know why we don't have a lead-out man here, because I thought I would have one or two," Kristoff continued. "But when I saw the team, in the list we had some replacements. Like Ben [Swift] had an injury in his back, so I was a bit for the sprints not the best, but sometimes I sprint best without a lead-out."
Indeed, Kristoff is coming off a win at the Eschborn-Frankfurt one-day WolrdTour race on May 1, where he had to freelance his way to the win after using up his teammates to pull back the breakaway. Aside from the obvious sprint days on stage 1, 5 and 7, Kristoff is also looking at the stage 3 finish at Laguna Seca, where the short-but-steep climbs leading to the famed racetrack mean sprint trains won't be a factor in the finish.
In 2016 when the race finished at Laguna Seca, Kristoff was dropped on the run in and finished 88th, while Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) beat Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) to the line for the win.
"It was really hard," he said. "I was there but I was not in the sprint. I was dropped. So I must be stronger this year if I'm going to make it."
Kristoff's 2016 stage win came in Santa Rosa on the penultimate day after a long slog through the coastal mountains. Kristoff was dropped but fought his way back to the peloton as it reeled in Sagan, who had escaped alone. The Norwegian returned to the race last year but had difficulties throughout the week, claiming top-five and top-10 results in sprint stages but otherwise suffering on the California roads.
"Last year I struggled a lot, I remember," he said. "Two years ago I felt better, but then I had many more days to get rid of the jet lag. Last year I came with only two training (days in California). This year I only had two training (days) but I came one day before, so I had one day before the team. So at least I got one more day this year. I hope that can help because last year I started to feel good in the end, but then the race was over."
Kristoff will get the opportunity to test his form and jet lag today in Long Beach. The 134.5km opening stage takes place on a pan-flat circuit that the riders will cover 12 times.
"[Stage 1] is maybe a little too easy, but I hope I will be ready for it," Kristoff said. "It will be a pure sprint. For sure I can perform in a pure sprint, but I think some riders are even faster than me, so I must be a bit lucky if I'm going to win. I felt good in Roubaix, and I was there until I crashed, and in Frankfurt, I won, so let's hope I continue with some results here."
Pointing toward the Tour de France
It's no secret that the Tour of California has become a favourite landing spot for sprinters heading for the Tour de France. This week Kristoff will be up against Sagan, Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), among others. Kristoff said the race provides a good test against top competition.
"There is a strong sprint field – I think tougher here than, for instance, in the Giro, so for the sprint stages it's really top level. You will see if you are where you should be or if you have some work to do."
Kristoff said he expects to have some riders dedicated to his lead-out at the French Grand Tour.
"I'll have one or two riders for the last kilometres," he said. "And then for sure, we will split the team. We also have some climbers. I think also Rui Costa is going there, so we will have some strong guys in the mountains. I think we will have some riders for every stage, more or less. We will not have a full team for me, but also not a full team for Dan [Martin] and Rui."
After five months with his new team, dynamics are still being worked out and personalities are still trying to mesh, but the 30-year-old Kristoff says he feels at home in the Italian-run team sponsored by a Middle Eastern country.
"I've got three wins," he said when asked about the season so far. "It's less than last year, but we had some difficulties getting together, and also in the Classics a little bad luck, but I feel more and more comfortable in the team, and the team took great care of me. I feel at home, actually, like it's my home team, so now it's just to get results."
Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake before studying English and journalism at the University of Oregon. He has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon.
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