Soaking up the sun next to the pool at the Tour of California team hotel while plodding through a series of interviews with reporters and sponsors, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) appeared relaxed and confident.
The 29-year-old Norwegian sprinter showed no signs of the "stress" he previously said enveloped the team following a disappointing Classics season, pointing to his recent win at Eschborn-Frankfurt as a positive start to his next block of racing.
"Right now I think the guys are motivated," Kristoff told Cyclingnews when asked about the current attitude within the team.
"Maybe in the Classics we a little bit underachieved," he said. "We had a lot of bad luck, punctures, crashes, so it was not really perfect, even if we had quite good results with San Remo fourth, Flanders fifth and in De Panne, we did quite well with a win and third overall. So it was not really bad, but we were maybe hoping for a little bit more."
In the offseason, the team switched its registration country from Russia to Switzerland and invested in several riders that Katusha hoped would boost the team's chances in the Classics, but the wins didn't come.
"Some bad circumstances, like, for example in Roubaix, Tony [Martin] punctured when he was in the front and I crashed while trying to bridge back to the front," Kristoff said. "Yeah, there was a lot of bad luck. So I hope this turns around now."
That "turn-around" got off to a good start in the German WorldTour race in Frankfurt, where Kristoff and Rick Zabel finished first and second ahead of John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Jempy Drucker (BMC Racing)
"When we started off in Frankfurt we had a first and second place with me and Rick, so it actually could not have been better," Kristoff said. "It was a really good start, and I feel now the tension in the group is good. We bring with us this week three from Frankfurt and we hope to build on this. Hopefully, we can make some good results also here."
Kristoff won't have to wait long for his first chance in California. Today's opening stage is a flat loop that starts and finishes in Sacramento and is almost guaranteed to end in a sprint. Sprint rivals Elia Viviani (Team Sky) and Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) expressed great confidence in their lead-outs, and Kristoff also believes he's got the team to go head-to-head with their trains.
"I think we have a quite good team for the lead-outs," he said. "We have Michael (Morkov), who is usually my last man. We have Rick [Zabel] now, and he did a good job in Frankfurt last time I raced with him.
"So these two guys for sure will be my last men, and then we also have Mads Wurtz Schmidt, who is a strong, powerful guy, a young guy. Then we have the rest like [Nills] Politt, who can also do a good lead-out and help the team in the last kilometres. So the team is pretty set up for the sprints here."
Also on hand, this week to contest the fast finishes are Degenkolb and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), not to mention the horde of Pro Continental and Continental teams that are hungry to see what they can do against their WorldTour betters.
There will be no shortage of teams battling for the sprint victories, and on the wide-open, relatively straightforward finishes like Sacramento, a good lead-out is crucial to success. Freelancing this week's bunch kicks will be a tall order.
Sharpening the form ahead of the Tour
Over the years the Tour of California has added more and more climbing stages, but the race still provides multiple opportunities for the sprinters, attracting top line-ups of riders who will be battling in on the roads of France in July. The high-calibre field provides an opportunity to sharpen the form and gauge the condition compared with the other riders.
"Right now is also the Giro, and there are almost more sprinters here in California," Kristoff said. "So for sure if you can make a good result here it should give you a lot of confidence because then you are where you should be at.
"If you don't make a good result, then you know you need to do some work before the Tour. So it's a good place to see where you are standing compared to others, especially with Kittel here. He's maybe the best sprinter at the moment, so I am excited to try and beat him. Then we have the others like Viviani, Degenkolb and all the guys. I think for sure it will not be easy to win."
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