There are many reasons to come to Belgium, but few people come here for the weather. Norwegian cyclist Alexander Kristoff, however, is a rare exception. “One of the benefits of coming from Norway is that I can actually come to Belgium for the good weather,” Kristoff says with a smile. “It’s always a few degrees warmer than in Norway.”
The 31-year-old of course comes for much more than the weather. In particular, he comes for some of his favorite bike races in the world. Ever since winning the Tour of Flanders in 2015, he has a special place in his heart for the quiet roads and canals that make up the landscape in this region of northwest Belgium. And he sets up camp here every spring in his quest to collect more classics victories.
This year’s campaign also provided the UAE Emirates team leader with plenty of time to test the new Stages Dash computer. And while most top riders are nervous before the mythic Ronde van Vlaanderen, Kristoff was particularly relaxed. Winning the prestigious Ghent–Wevelgem the previous weekend perhaps gave him some pre-race confidence. And after riding the Flanders recon the day before, Kristoff was only too happy to meet up with Peloton and prepare his new computer.
Veteran Italian mechanic Giuseppe Archetti easily set up Kristoff’s new Dash on his aero Colnago before the rider came down for his Saturday morning training ride. “Looks pretty easy to work,” he said as he turned it on and ran through a variety of the controls. “Pretty intuitive.”
Soon enough, Kristoff rolled out down the first of the single-lane farm roads that would make up the bulk of the team’s ride. And after passing through the town of Oudenaarde, the riders soon jumped onto another Flanders fixture: the bike path alongside the Scheldt Canal, a major waterway. Tons of cargo are transported up and down this artery daily. And its quiet banks are tailor made for cycling, a perfect place to spin the legs before attacking one of cycling’s most grueling classics. And it was here where Kristoff jumped away from his teammates with several repeated attacks.
“Flanders is actually better for me than Paris–Roubaix,” he said. Each of the climbs is like a sprint. So you may push more watts on one of the climbs, but then afterwards, when you go downhill you may be pushing zero watts for a bit. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but Flanders is more explosive, yet there is time to recover. In Roubaix, you may never push as hard, but there is no time to recover. You just have to push all the time, all the time, all the time.”
Kristoff now knows these roads as well as the local Flemish riders. And back in 2015 he literally started a new tradition by breaking away early in the Ronde. “The first year I did Flanders was 2012. That was the first year on the new course that finishes with the circuits around the Kwaremont and Paterberg. Those first years, everyone I think was really scared of the last lap, the last time up those climbs. So they waited until the last time up the Kwaremont. But year by year people are going from farther out.”
While the modern Flanders course is more open, Kristoff admits that the Kwaremont and Paterberg, the two central climbs on the final circuit, are particularly grueling. “The Kwaremont is definitely the hardest climb. It’s just so long. It already starts climbing before you hit the cobbles. Then you have the main part of the climb that is on cobbles. But then, even after, you have a very long section that is still on cobbles. I often average 500 watts up the Kwaremont. All together it is by far the longest and hardest climb. And the Paterberg is really brutal, but it is much shorter.”
After waiting for his teammates on the Saturday training ride, Kristoff rode easily along the canal before heading back to their hotel.
“Winning Ghent–Wevelgem last week definitely gave me confidence,” he said after lunch, at a pre-race press conference. “But I want to continue performing well. You know there are a lot of places where you can lose Flanders. To be at the front at the finish in Flanders, you have to be at the front at many critical parts of the race. For me, if Flanders gets too easy, it will not help me. It is much better for me when it is just a long, hard race all day long.”
Indeed, Kristoff continued his strong 2019 classics campaign the next day. He was at the front on the historic Geraardsbergen Muur and he remained close to the front on the final climbs, handily taking the sprint for third place in the group of favorites behind surprise winner Alberto Bettiol and late attacker Kasper Asgreen. “It was a hard race. It was hard for everybody. I was very tired when we hit the Kwaremont for the last time. But I think everybody was. It was a tactical race, but for me I was just trying to survive. But I’m happy,” he said. “Now I just have one more classics race, Paris–Roubaix. But the condition is there.”
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