At the start of the week, Alexander Kristoff was so sick from a stomach complaint he almost dropped out of the Tour de France. On Thursday, the only Norwegian cyclist in the 2014 competition surged back to a stunning victory in stage 12 from Bourg-en-Bresse to Saint-Étienne.
Kristoff held off the field on the 185.5 kilometer leg, beating out green jersey-wearer Peter Sagan and Arnaud Démare, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He is only the fifth Norwegian to win a stage of “Le Tour,” the last being Edvald Boasson Hagen in 2011.
He started the sprint early, but stayed in control right to the finish line. “I really lost my teammates the last few kilometers, but found Trentin and he had some people in front of him and then I took the wheel,” said the Katusha team rider. “Then I sit and wait until the moment is there.”
It was a relief for the Norwegian, who’d carried a significant weight of expectation throughout the Tour and had two second place finishes in the first week. “I have so clearly felt the pressure,” Kristoff told newspaper Aftenbladet on Thursday night. “Every time it is a flat stage the Norwegian media and the Norwegian people expect a victory.”
“Everything gets turned on its head when you win,” he said. “There’s so much fuss that it almost becomes an anticlimax. Luckily the next two stages don’t mean anything for me, but on Sunday I will be in and fighting for a new stage victory.”
Kristoff received a text message on Thursday night from Norwegian cycling champion Thor Hushovd, who won 10 Tour de France stages. “Congratulations on the victory,” it read. “Just nine to go.”
“It was one of the most awesome sprints I have seen in a long time,” said NRK cycling expert Dag Erik Pedersen. “It’s a huge day. It’s a great experience. It was a cool victory. A demonstration of force after the stomach problems he has had.”
Painful stomach issues and difficulty absorbing nutrition nearly forced Kristoff out of the event after Sunday’s leg. He battled through stage 10 on Monday, but told reporters afterward he felt heavy, lacked energy and had bad legs. He’d been eating very little before competing to avoid aggravating his stomach pains, and dropped three kilograms on a diet of plain rice.
“It was a fantastic experience to see him win the stage of the Tour de France,” Pedersen said. “It was goosebumps with a capital G. I think he’s happy today that he didn’t drop out. He has managed to build himself up mentally and physically. To get your body to work like that is a masterpiece. What he did today is top class.”
Kristoff also won the Milan-San Remo race earlier in the year. Aftenbladet reported only the very strongest riders manage to win one of the five spring classics and a stage in the Tour de France in the same calendar year. The 27-year-old was the first Norwegian to do so. “It’s clear that this victory means an enormous amount for his future,” said Kristoff’s coach and stepfather, Stein Ørn.
“This year’s season was already a success when I won Milan-San Remo, and with the stage victory the Tour de France is also a success,” Kristoff said. “Really, my whole career is a success with the two victories.” Still, Kristoff was not giving up. Three Tour stages remained good victory chances, and he is on track to keep developing over the next decade.
“It’s always about looking forward,” said Ørn. “Alexander has had a linear development. He is on form, so to speak. In about two years he will be at the top as a cyclist. Then he’ll go into his golden years. It’s about enduring the enormous amount of training and continuing the development. If he manages that it is possible to win classics, stages in the Tour de France, world championships and possibly the Olympics. Hopefully this is just the beginning.”