Alexander Kristoff believes going up against and beating the best sprinters in cycling proves he can do so on the sport’s biggest stages – like the Tour de France.
The Norwegian navigated his way through a packed bunch sprint in Madinat Zayed on Wednesday to claim the opening stage victory of the Abu Dhabi Tour – a poignant one for both him and his new team, UAE Team Emirates, at their home race.
Success follows on from teammate Rui Costa winning the penultimate stage at last year’s event which helped him race to the overall title at Yas Marina Circuit.
Unlike at the Dubai Tour earlier this month where he claimed four top 10 finishes but had to watch as Mark Cavendish won one stage and Elia Viviani two more as the Italian secured overall victory, Kristoff was crowned king of the Al Fahim Stage, clinging to Mitchelton-Scott rider Caleb Ewan’s wheel and stalking the Australian as he made his move before passing him close to the line.
Quick-Step Floors’ Viviani was fourth, while German duo Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel lagged behind in 10th and 15th places respectively.
And Kristoff admitted victory gives him confidence going into the remainder of the season.
“For sure. It’s also a WorldTour race so there’s lots of good riders here. All the best sprinters,” said the 30-year-old reigning European champion.
“We were missing some guys and Cavendish crashed out. But apart from that all the best are here so if you can win here it shows you can win at the Tour de France too. That gives me confidence for the rest of the season.”
Kristoff was celebrating a second success in just three days, his victory in the Western Region coming on the back of winning the final Stage 6 at the Tour of Oman on Monday.
And he admitted he could hardly have envisaged a more perfect start to life with UAE Team Emirates.
“Not really. I could have won already in Dubai, but the start is good. To get a win here in the home race is important for me and also the team,” he said.
“We were close in Dubai, I felt good there and in Oman. I found a good way to the front and at the front I know I can beat the best on my good days. It gives me confidence that I can race against the best guys and beat them.”
With the likes of reigning Abu Dhabi champion Costa and 2015 Vuelta a Espana champion Fabio Aru alongside him in Abu Dhabi, there seemed a conundrum for team officials to decide who to choose as the lead rider.
But Kristoff revealed the team has goals every day, and that the General Classification is the biggest one – suggesting that the stage is set for Costa or Aru to take charge.
“We have goals every day,” he added.
“It’s a relief to win and I hope for the same again tomorrow. Hopefully we will not lose too much time for the GC guys on the time trial and then hopefully they can take advantage on the last day and win the race. The GC is the most important thing.”
The stage itself got off to a calamitous start as race ambassador Cavendish collided with the race director’s vehicle in the neutralised zone – before the stage had even officially begun.
The Manx Missile and three other riders were floored when the vehicle in front appeared to brake suddenly. Cavendish, 32, re-joined the peloton only to call it a day 5km later, and the Team Dimension Data man has abandoned his Tour.
A five-man breakaway formed early on as Damiano Caruso (BMC), Vincenzo Albanese (Bardiani CSF), Nikolay Trusov (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Charles Planet (Team Novo Nordisk) and Toms Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) pushed the pace.
Italy’s Caruso made a break for it himself later on and led until he was finally reeled in with 13km of the stage’s 189km to go, with the late drama ensuing.
Mark Cavendish has abandoned the Abu Dhabi Tour after he crashed in the neutralised zone on Stage 1.
Cycling News reported the Manx Missile fell shortly after the race rolled out of Madinat Zayed, before the race had even officially started, in an incident which is believed to have been caused when several riders were forced to slam on their brakes and fell when the race director’s vehicle broke sharply in front of them.
Although the Team Dimension Data rider was able to remount and re-join the peloton before the official start, he wheeled to a halt again at the roadside after just five kilometres and abandoned the race.
Dimension Data confirmed that Cavendish fell on the same shoulder that he fractured in the heavy crash with Peter Sagan that forced him to abandon the 2017 Tour de France on Stage 4.
The full extent of the injury and its impact on the rest of his early-season programme is not yet clear, with Dimension Data set to provide further information after Cavendish has undergone a medical check-up.
The Abu Dhabi Tour – where the 32-year-old Cavendish has won three previous stages – was to be his third race of the 2018 season after he kicked off his campaign with a stage win at the Dubai Tour and then raced the Tour of Oman last week.
Defending Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin says Chris Froome would be a welcome addition to this year’s race, but insists the saga over the Briton’s failed drug test last year can’t be allowed to hang over one of the most prestigious races in cycling.
Team Sky rider Froome won both the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana in 2017 – two of cycling’s famed Triple Crown – but his success has since been shrouded in controversy after two urine samples taken following the Vuelta turned up with twice the allowed level of asthma drug salbutamol in.
That became public knowledge in December, thus throwing aspersions on Froome’s two victories last year, as well as his three previous triumphs at Le Tour in 2013, 2015 and 2016.
Froome has already stated he will compete at the Giro – cycling’s third Grand Tour – this year, starting on May 4, and the Kenyan-born rider remains free to compete while under investigation.
He finished 10th at the Ruta del Sol in Spain on Sunday and Giro organisers are pushing for a solution from the UCI before the race starts as it does not want a situation like in 2011 – when Alberto Contador won the overall title but later was stripped of it for an anti-doping case from the 2010 Tour.
And ahead of the Abu Dhabi Tour which starts on Wednesday, Team Sunweb rider Dumoulin claims a repeat would be the “worst scenario ever” for cycling.
“It would be very bad if he starts the Giro without still knowing something and they have to say after the Giro then that he’s suspended. That would be the worst scenario ever so I hope they find a solution,” Dumoulin, 27, told reporters at the Abu Dhabi Tour press conference at Yas Marina Circuit in the UAE capital on Tuesday.
“I hope justice prevails, and whatever that may be. Everyone wants clarity. I think Froome wants the same. Everyone wants that. The public is asking for that.
“I don’t think a lot of riders have a different opinion, I think they agree that it’s not good for cycling that this case is lingering on and there’s not a solution.”
A team of legal advisers are challenging the Froome finding and it is understood the crux of their argument centres around the 32-year-old’s kidney function.
Dumoulin declined to say whether he believed Froome should take himself out of competing while the case is resolved, but believes everyone wants the situation resolved before the Giro.
“I can’t say if he should sit out. At the moment he’s allowed to race, so he may do that, he may not, but it’s his decision,” said Dutchman Dumoulin who claimed the 2017 Maglia Rosa ahead of Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain-Merida.
“I guess everybody wants that and I guess Froome wants the same. Also the public too. They want to know what’s going on.”
Giro director Mauro Vegni said earlier this month: “We cannot accept a repeat of the Contador case or a trial after the fact. We want a certificate from the UCI that allows the rider to start the Giro.”
As for Dumoulin, Abu Dhabi forms part of his preparations for defending his Giro title. And he revealed that he wants to compete in Le Tour in July too, depending on how he fares at the Giro.
“The Tour could definitely be an option,” he said.
“We will see after the Giro. We have a few scenarios ready and then will decide maybe a week or two after the Giro how I feel. If I’m completely f****d and I mentally don’t see myself riding the Tour anymore then we don’t do it.
“If I feel good then it may be possible to do it. First the Giro and first Abu Dhabi.”