The Victorious Viking, Alexander Kristoff, is back in action for UAE Team Emirates after his emphatic win at Gent Wevelgem last weekend.
This Sunday he will lead an all-star roster of riders over the cobbles at the Tour of Flanders, one of the five iconic cycling monuments of the season.
Kristoff will go into the race full of confidence; not only because he is in great form but also because this is a race he knows he has the capability to win – having stood on the top step of the podium in 2015.
UAE Team Emirates’ other star sprinter Fernando Gaviria will race with Kristoff alongside the young Belgium rider Jasper Philipsen who knows these roads well having grown up in the region.
Supporting the fast men will be Kristoff’s fellow Norwegian team-mates Sven Erik Bystrom and national champion Vegard Stake Laengen as well as the Italian duo of Marco Marcato and Oliviero Troia.
The team will be guided by sports directors Allan Peiper (Australia) and Simone Pedrazzini (Switzerland).
The Tour of Flanders (Ronde Van Vlaanderen) is considered one of the toughest one-day races of the season and has been a staple on the cycling calendar for over 100 years. The 2019 route is 266km long and will be played out over 18 different cobbled sections of road, some with unimaginably steep gradients.
The most famous climb of all is the Koppenberg, a brutal hill with a gradient that peaks at 22 per cent and a surface of uneven cobbles that often forces professional riders to step off their bike and walk up sections of it. Since the route was changed in 2012 to make it safer for riders the Koppenberg climb has been pushed back to just 45km from the finish, ensuring it plays an even more decisive part in how the race unfolds.
However, it’s the combined challenge of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg that are the most crucial. They are both climbed in short succession shortly prior to the Koppenberg, the former famed for being punishingly long and the latter being punishingly steep.
As all bike racing fans will know, the Tour of Flanders never plays out in a straightforward manner, and the riders of UAE Team Emirates will have to be alert to a continued barrage of attacks which will likely be made before these final ascents.
Winning this race is never a matter of being the strongest rider, as it requires a perfect mix of tactics, team support and luck.
Team manager Joxean Fernandez Matxin said: “We will be able to count on two riders with some excellent potential, Kristoff and Gaviria, supported by a high-level group with Bystrom, Laengen, Marcato and Troia.
“Kristoff is a guarantee, he has already won this huge monument and knows how to manage himself the best possible way. Gaviria has less experience, but has exceptional qualities.
“In addition, we have Philipsen, a sure protagonist in this race over the next few years. This experience will help him mature and will be invaluable in the coming years. The Tour of Flanders is a very difficult race, but with these riders we have a winning potential.”
UAE National Champion Yousif Mirza returns to action following a successful ride at the Tour of Egypt where the Emirati picked up an impressive Stage win.
The 30-year-old, who won the Asian Cycling Championships last season, was dominant in winning stage five at Aswan last weerk,
The Ras Al Khaimah native will provide support at the Giro di Sicilia for General Classification hopeful Kristijan Durasek.
Joining the team will be Jan Polanc, Simone Petilli, Ivo Oliveira, Roberto Ferrari and Juan Sebastian Molano.
The Giro di Sicilia debuts on the UCI calendar this year and provides spectators in Southern Italy a chance to get a taste of road racing ahead of the Giro d’Italia this May.
The four-stage race will play out across the hills of Sicily, with Stage one setting off from the town of Catania on the east coast of the island.
Polanc knows this climb extremely well, having won the Giro d’Italia stage here in 2017.
“It’s always beautiful for me to return to Sicily and above all, to Etna. I’d like to repeat that show that gave me the Giro win,” he said.
“I like that climb and my condition after Tirreno-Adriatico is still good. I’m not going to be under any sort of pressure, but I’ll ride with optimism and courage.”
Mirza added: “I maintained my race rhythm that I had at the UAE championships, so I’m going to be heading to Sicily with good form. The team is competitive, and I’ll try to give my best and of course, and I’m motivated to race in Italy.”
It was the Norwegian’s second victory of the season – having picked up a stage win at the Tour of Oman in February – and he did so in a stylish fashion. Strong winds throughout the race had pulled apart the peloton, and with just 5km to go, a breakaway group of four riders threatened to take the spoils.
But a reduced chasing group caught them with less than a kilometre to go and a bunched sprint became inevitable. As the riders powered their way into the final 200m, Kristoff held the perfect position alongside some of cycling’s most decorated sprinters.
But with teammate Fernando Gaviria also in the mix, 31-year-old Kristoff launched his final attack with 100m to go; leaving the lead group in his wake and crossing the line a metre ahead of his nearest rival.
Kristoff said: “I remained at the front of the group with Gaviria. At 10 kilometres out, we spoke and agreed that I would make this sprint and try to win. In the sprint, I was the strongest and that’s even if I was a little bit tired but all the riders at the front of the group raced hard and fast from the start.
“I pulled out a big win that carries a lot of weight in the spring classics. The team has improved a lot and I’m benefiting from the work that I’ve done with my trainers and with training rides a little shorter but more intense, and the results are starting to show.
“The change is paying off. I’m also content because I feel my condition is improving and it’s a good signal ahead of the Tour of Flanders.”
The victory gives UAE Team Emirates its first big classic one-day race win and their eleventh victory of the season.