Alexander Kristoff once again showed his strength in the Classics as he fought his way to a third place finish at the Tour of Flanders.
The Norwegian powerhouse, who won the Tour of Flanders in 2015, was able to make the front chasing group of 15 as they attempted to bring back the solo breakaway man – Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) – who made an attack in the third and final pass of the Oude Kwaremont with 18km to go and eventually won the race.
In the final few kilometres Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick Step) was able to attack off the front for second place, with Kristoff outsprinting the bunch to take a well-deserved third place, 17 seconds behind Bettiol.
Sven Erik Bystrom and Fernando Gaviria rode in the leading group until the final 20km, before the pace and parcours became too challenging for them to remain at the front of the race. Jasper Philipsen crashed mid-race and while he was able to continue, he later retired and did not finish.
Kristoff said: “It could seem that the race was very tactical but, as far as I’m concerned, it was a race that was always pushed to the limit. I came to the foot of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg for the last time with very tired legs and I was a bit surprised to see that I was able to stay with the main group.
“It was then that I realised they were all very tired too. The situation worked better than I could have imagined and I tried to take advantage of it. The result makes me happy. I have a good shape, I have high morale after these races, I can count on a team that is racing well and I hope that these conditions will recur in a week in Paris-Roubaix.”
Kristoff’s performance delivered the third podium finish for UAE Team Emirates in a Belgian WorldTour race in 2019. It adds to his win at Gent-Wevelgem and the second place for Gaviria at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne.
Dan Martin will be hoping he has the luck of the Irish on his side as he joins a selection of riders fresh from the GP Miguel Indurain to tackle the beautiful, but brutal, Tour of the Basque Country from April 8-13.
UAE Team Emirates‘ Martin, who looked in great shape during the Tour of Catalunya, will be supported by Colombian climber Sergio Henao – who has seen success in this race with three career podiums – and the Italian puncheur Diego Ulissi, who favours this type of race.
Two more Italians – Edward Ravasi and Manuele Mori – make up the seven-man team, along with Australian Rory Sutherland and the rising Slovenian super-talent Tadej Pogacar.
Sports directors Neil Stephens (Australia) and Aurelio Corral (Spain) will guide the team through the six-day stage race.
The 59th edition of Tour of the Basque Country kicks into gear with a challenging Individual Time Trial (ITT) in Zumarraga that is 11.2km in length.
The second stage from Zumarraga to Gorraiz has a hilly route that features punchy climbs in the first 50km before a more rolling profile leads to a nasty uphill finish to the line where the riders will face a 600m run-in at 8.1 per cent.
Stage 3 is the longest race in this edition. It is 191.4km long and far from flat, yet the parcours will likely set up a power sprint to the finish near the Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Estibaliz. The final two kilometres go up at approximately 4 per cent and could be one for UAE Team Emirates’ Ulissi to contend.
Four climbs are included in the fourth stage from Vitoria-Gasteiz to Arrigorriaga. The last one is extremely irregular – a 2.3 per cent slope in the first kilometre and 6.4 per cent in the second, before an 800m drop continues onto a 500m climb at 10 per cent. The climb levels out before the top and a fast descent drops down to the finish line.
Stage 5 from Arrigorriaga to Santuario de Arrate serves up seven climbs before finishing near the iconic Sanctuary of Arrate. The final haul up is five kilometres at 8.8 per cent, while the last few kilometres run on rolling terrain before a 600m drop to the finish.
The sixth stage of the Tour of the Basque Country is an explosive out-and-back race through the hills around Eibar. The final ascent is the Asensio. This is a 7.3km climb with its toughest section ramping up to 9.5 per cent for over 1km. The following descent flies down to the mountain in to Eibar and could be where the GC is finally decided.
Team Manager Joxean Fernandez Matxin said: “We will be racing in the Basque Country with a very balanced team, ready and with the right qualities to try to get a result and be protagonists.
“We have high calibre riders to lead the team and for supporting the men doing so. Expect to see Mori, Ravasi and Sutherland doing some serious leg-work for the stars.
“Henao has always done well in the Basque Country, with three career podiums; Martin is always a guarantee and has rode an excellent Volta a Catalunya; Ulissi knows this race perfectly well and Pogacar can make his mark every time he takes the start of a race.”
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.”