It’s almost exactly a decade since Valerio Piva first encountered Alexander Kristoff.
Following the disbandment of the Highroad team, Piva joined the management at Katusha for the 2012 season and one of the riders entrusted to his charge was a new
sprinter and Classics rider from BMC.
Kristoff had won just two races as a professional at that point – both on home roads in the Norwegian National Championships – but his horizons began to broaden during Piva’s two-year stint at Katusha. A bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics hinted at his potential and a series of strong displays on the cobbles the following spring confirmed it.
“He came to Katusha from BMC at the same time that I arrived from Highroad, and I quickly saw that he had talent,” Piva told Cyclingnews.
“In those two years, I looked after him, I was his reference point as directeur sportif. After I left Katusha, he stayed there and won the big races that he won but even from the beginning it was clear that he was a rider who had a lot of motivation, a lot of aggression, someone who never gave up. He had great character and that’s something you don’t lose.”
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Piva certainly has reason to hope Kristoff is still competitive, given that the Norwegian is the 2022 marquee signing for his Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert squad as they face their second season at WorldTour level.
“Kristoff will be an important rider because he’s bringing us to a new level in the Classics and maybe in some sprints, he’ll be up there too,” said Piva, who acknowledged that his team would, by and large, have to continue to race opportunistically in 2022 as they did during their maiden season in the WorldTour.
Wanty-Intermarché-Gobert gained promotion by purchasing the defunct CCC team’s licence but they have one of the lowest budgets in the top flight and, in the early months of 2021, they struggled to make their presence felt. Their first victory of the year only arrived in May when Taco van der Hoorn upset the odds to fend off the sprinters and win stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia in Canale.
The Dutchman’s triumph marked something of a turning point for the team, who chalked up eight more wins thereafter, as well as stints in the red jersey of the Vuelta a España for both Rein Taaramäe and Odd Christian Eiking.
In many respects, Van der Hoorn’s victory embodied the philosophy of a team forced to be inventive as it punches above its weight at WorldTour level.
“Obviously, we don’t have the best climber or the best sprinter, so we always sought to show ourselves and move from a distance and that was sort of the key to our success,” Piva said.
“Then once you start getting results it motivates the whole group and in the second half of the season we obtained what we hoped for.
“Cycling has changed a bit, and you can see that more breaks are going the distance than in the past. If you don’t have a GC man who can compete with the best, it’s hard to think about winning races in that way so you have to move before, like we did. If you have aggressive riders, you can get results by attacking from a distance.”
Kristoff will be, by some margin, the most experienced and decorated rider in the Wanty-Intermarché-Gobert roster in 2022 and the Norwegian’s presence should alter the team’s approach in late March and early April at the very least. Perhaps for the first time since he raced at Katusha, he will race from Milan-San Remo to Paris-Roubaix as his team’s number one option in the Classics.
“We still need to make ourselves known as a team and he’s bringing both his image and his experience, and that will motivate the group,” Piva said.
“Winning is always the main objective but getting placings in the Monuments – which he has already won – would also be a great result for us. You race to win, but if you finish second or third in those races, it’s still a huge athletic performance.”
Kristoff perhaps no longer possesses the same turn of speed that carried him to Milan-San Remo victory in 2014 or the overwhelming force that he unleashed en route to winning the Tour of Flanders a year later but he remained consistent through his four-year tenure at UAE Team Emirates, winning two stages of the Tour de France and the 2019 Gent-Wevelgem. He also placed on the podium of the Tour of Flanders in both 2019 and 2020.
While Piva acknowledged that men like Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel now dictate the terms of engagement in the cobbled Classics, he believes that Kristoff’s nous and powers of endurance could still take him a long, long way next April.
“Clearly we’re talking about two great talents and they’ll always be favourites,” Piva said.
“But the race is only decided at the finish, you never know what could happen. A Kristoff in good condition and supported by a group of riders in the finale can still have his say. The youth and freshness of those two is to their advantage at this point in time but in the big Monuments it’s often experience that makes the difference. I believe Kristoff can be up there and competitive against them.”