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After Flanders win, is Kristoff Norway’s new cycling king?

OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — In Norway on Sunday evening, in the first hours after Alexander Kristoff won Belgium’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), the locals already crowned their next king of cycling.

Kristoff (Katusha) had just won his second monument after winning last year’s edition of Milano-Sanremo in a sprint ahead of Swiss Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Brit Ben Swift (Sky), which was followed by two stage wins at the Tour de France last summer. This surely would merit a crown Norwegians believed.

His win did merit such accolades, but the 27-year-old’s career is still in its early phases and must be compared to the country’s other big cycling star, Thor Hushovd.

Hushovd, who retired at the end of 2014, won the 2010 road world championship, the 2006 Gent-Wevelgem, and 10 individual Tour de France stages.

“Maybe Thor sits on top with the worlds title, something easily recognizable in Norway, but Alexander is arriving,” Anders Christiansen, a journalist for Norway’s VG, told VeloNews.

“Kristoff, with two monuments in hand and two Tour stages, is nearly the best we have ever had. And he’ll have his chance at a worlds title in the next two years because both the Richmond and Qatar courses suit him.”

Norwegian cycling is enjoying a golden era. Hushovd led the way with his early wins in Crédit Agricole’s green kit. Edvald Boasson Hagen followed, winning Gent-Wevelgem (2009) and two Tour stages (2011). Now, Kristoff is taking over.

Before the trio, Norway only had cyclists like Dag Otto Lauritzen and Dag Erik Pedersen, stage winners in the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, respectively.

“Thor made it big in Norway with his wins. And he remains huge because of his charisma,” Christiansen added.

“Alexander can do the same. He is not there yet, but he is on the same level. He talks about doping. He’s not afraid to speak.”

Hushovd comes from the south of the monarchical state. Kristoff hails from Stavanger, known as the “Oil Capital of Norway” on the west coast. His dad worked as a sports journalist for NRK, but it was his stepdad, a former track cyclist and trainer, who got Kristoff going so well on two wheels.

BMC Racing was not convinced. After a two-year-stint (2010-2011), general manager Jim Ochowicz did not renew Kristoff’s contract. With Russian team Katusha, however, Kristoff’s career kicked off.

He earned a “sprinter” title with wins in various stage races, including the Tour of Oman and the Tour de Suisse. He then bagged the sprinters’ monument, Milano-Sanremo.

Kristoff, however, has the staying power that makes him more than a pure sprinter like Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step). Instead, he can hang with the hardmen on the road and save enough in the tank for the win.

“Is this my evolution as a cyclist? I think this is where I can make it,” Kristoff said.

“At least when you get older, you get slower, and maybe sprinting will be more difficult for me. For the classics, you get even better sometimes because you can handle long distances and the hard racing better as you get older.”

Said Kristoff’s Italian teammate Luca Paolini: “A surprise? A little, but he showed his power winning in the windy stages of the Tour of Qatar. He was practically without a team and managing it himself.”

“Someone like Marcel Kittel is faster, but not as strong when the road undulates so much. It’s hard that he doesn’t win when it’s flat and 200 kilometers, but we are talking about classics, 250km and often with pavé.”

Kristoff repaid Paolini as much as he could in Milano-Sanremo two weeks ago, but he was beaten to second place by another cyclist of similar strengths, German John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin).

Kristoff placed fourth in E3 Harelbeke and ninth in Gent-Wevelgem before peaking last week, winning three of the four stages and the overall in the Three Days of De Panne ahead of his Flanders victory.

“It’s maybe the best week in my career,” Kristoff said.