This past weekend saw Alexander Kristoff break a long winning drought by taking victory at a brutal edition of Gent-Wevelgem. The win was a much-needed return to the top step of the podium in the spring classics for one of the most underrated riders in the peloton, who, with his recent show of form, should be considered a favorite for this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, and next Sunday’s Paris Roubaix. Since Gent-Wevelgem moved to its current schedule slot in 2011, three riders have won both Gent and Paris-Roubaix (Sagan-2018, Avermaet-2017, Boonen-2012) and one rider has won Gent before winning Flanders the following weekend (Boonen-2012).
Despite the fact that Gent-Wevelgem has produced the Paris-Roubaix winner three out of the past seven years, Kristoff will likely struggle to match the pre-race of riders like Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and John Degenkolb. He is rarely mentioned as a true star, but he currently holds as many monument titles as Peter Sagan and Team Sky, while having more than a superstar like Van Avermaet.
The big Norweigan raised eyebrows in 2013 when he finished in the top 10 at three separate monuments (Tour of Flanders, Milan San Remo, and Paris Roubaix). The following season, he won Milan San Remo, along with two Tour de France stages, and then added a second monument victory in 2015 with a win at the Tour of Flanders. While he hasn’t been able to capture quite the same success in the years since, he won the European Road Race Championships in 2017 and was a tire width away from being World Champion later that year.
While having a proven track record as a monument winner, Kristoff is consistently written off as washed up despite being two years younger than Van Avermaet, who the media seems to count as a favorite for what seems like every race he starts. Van Avermaet is showered with adoring coverage even as he struggles to convert victories at the biggest races.
Kristoff’s struggle to stay relevant in the past few seasons (even while he racked up an impressive 25 wins from 2016 to 2018) likely stems from the fact that he was somewhat unfairly labeled a “sprinter” following his first two Tour de France stages wins in 2014, along with the unfortunate narrative that is he is overweight.
With an ability to hit peaks of over 1500 watts at the end of races, Kristoff can wind up to the speeds necessary to win in the most competitive bunch finishes, but he lacks the fast-twitch abilities of pure sprinters. This means he isn’t able to consistently nab first week Grand Tour stages wins. But what he lacks in quickness he makes up for in raw, overwhelming power and an ability to crank out watts for hours on end while still producing a race-winning sprint. We shouldn’t consider top 10s in an easy-stage bunch sprints a disappointment, we should be impressed that such a diesel power is able to mix it up with the quickest riders on the planet.
For example, according to Velon, Kristoff averaged a stunning 345 watts for the entire 5.5 hours of Gent-Wevelgem, and still managed to hit 1432 watts to win the reduced bunch sprint.
Producing this amount of power for over five hours is incredibly impressive, and should make him one of the top favorites for both Flanders and Roubaix.
It would be a mistake to assume Kristoff is simply a pair of strong legs that smashes his way to wins. His victory on Sunday at Gent was more than just the product of superior power. Kristoff made a canny solo move off the front 8 kilometers before the final passage of the Kemmelberg climb. While this move caused him to burn more energy, it allowed him to ride the final climb at his own pace and get over the top with the lead group. This meant that he was able to sit on and recover for a few kilometers while the other sprinters like Viviani and Degenkolb were forced to chase furiously to catch back on.
While he possesses world-class power and tactical nous, Kristoff may not be considered a world-class classics contender due to the fact that his natural body shape can make him appear out of shape. Cycling has an obsession with rider weight, even to the point of being detrimental to performance. Hugh Carthy on EF often shows up to races looking unhealthily skinny and has struggled mightily with results in the past few seasons. However, his weight is rarely, if ever, publically mentioned as a determining factor in this lack of performance. To many in professional cycling, the math is simple, skinny equals fast. Therefore, a rider can never be criticized for shedding a few too many pounds.
If skinny equals fast, then fat (or slightly bigger) must equal slow. Even if the objective of cycling is to cross the finish before your competitors, this reality will often become decoupled from rider weight. Kristoff has delivered big wins while being called fat by his own team, but few stop to consider the possibility that he is winning because of his bigger physique. The Cobbled Spring Classics, Kristoff’s best races, do not feature any long, sustained climbs, where a lighter rider can gain an advantage, and power-to-weight ratio matters little when hammering over the cobbled flat roads and short, explosive climbs of Northern Europe. If Kristoff worked to dropped weight like his former Katusha team suggested, it is likely he would lose his ability to produce 345 watts for over five hours.
Despite the stigma surrounding bigger, stronger physiques, Kristoff should line up at whatever weight he feels allows him to ride the fastest, and in turn, gives him the greatest chance of victory.
With the big fan looking back on form, the rest of the peloton should consider themselves warned and avoid taking him to the finish at all costs.