With this weekend’s Milan-San Remo race marking the start of cycling’s one-day Classics season, Alexander Kristoff – winner of the event in 2014 and the Tour of Flanders in 2015 – tells Telegraph Men what it takes to be a one-day cycling champion
1. Imagine a killer Tour de France stage, then add 50km
“The Classics (a series of one-day races held in March and April each year, including Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix) are very different from the big stage races like the Tour de France because they are much longer courses and everything happens in one day. They happen early in the year so all the best guys are there and in good shape and feeling fresh.
"Compared to a usual Tour stage they maybe add another 50km. Milan-San Remo (on March 18) is about 300km, the Tour of Flanders (on April 2) is 260km and Paris-Roubaix (on April 9) is 260km. Because the races are so long your body is not used to the last 20-30km. By the end even the best riders disappear off the back because they’re so tired and everyone is struggling on the limit.
"Milan-San Remo is the worst because at the end you have climbs like the Cipressa. After 300km, you are dead.”
2. The fans are so close they become part of the race
“It is true that the fans are so close at the Classics you can smell the beer on their breath. In some ways it is a bit like what you see in the Alps at the Tour when big crowds stand really close to the riders, but at races like the Tour of Flanders in Belgium the roads are even narrower so the people are even closer. There is sometimes only room for two riders side by side and that makes it really hard because it means you have to be in the right position near the front.
"If you have to stand off and wait for a space people might be sprinting away in front of you so you will need to catch them up and make up the gap. Getting in the right position is a big part of the race.”
3. Watch out for the snow
“Because the Classics are so early in the season you often get bad weather, rain or snow.
"In the year I won Milan-San Remo (2014) the main thing I did differently to the others was to pin my race numbers onto a warm fleece jacket. I remember my Norwegian friend Thor Hushovd laughing at me and saying, ‘When you pass Turchino (about halfway through the course) you will sweat like hell!’ But when we passed Turchino, it just got even colder. It was raining really heavily and it was so cold but I was wearing a warm jacket while everyone else was freezing and shivering. I was cold too, just not as cold as them.
"If you are shivering all day you actually waste a lot of energy so it saved me some energy for sure.”
4. Every wasted calorie can cost you
“At Milan-San Remo you have to manage all the climbs before you even get to the finish so that means you have to save your energy. You have to be really smart. In the Classics every calorie counts and every pedal stroke matters. When you are racing for 300km and have two big climbs at the end if you use too much energy you will struggle to make it to the finish in good shape.”
5. Older guys know how to use their experience
“Because the Classics are so unpredictable with cobbles and crashes and bad weather you have to be really quick to react but a lot of that comes down to knowing the course and knowing where to be at certain times. It’s not just about knowing the climbs but about knowing the roads up to the climbs too.
"You always see young guys who are strong at the start but by the finish there are normally older guys who are not so strong but who got to the front because they know the right time to make a move.”
6. It’s not about speeding up; more about not slowing down
“The Classics are so long and you never know what will happen on the day. In the year I won the Tour of Flanders (2015) I was really struggling on the first cobbled climb and I thought that if the other riders got any faster I would be dead. But by the end they were not going any faster and some were slowing down.
"When you think, ‘I am not going any faster but I am not going any slower either,’ normally that is a good thing. It is best to keep level. I can do one speed all day but if they go hard at the start I suffer.”
7. Do your homework
“At the 2015 Tour of Flanders I was pretty sure I would be able to beat Niki Terpstra in the sprint finish because I am usually faster than him but the hard bit was going to be getting there. So when he went on the attack I decided to follow him. I knew before the race that he was in good shape so I decided to go with him and we ended up having a sprint. I knew that if he didn’t get away from me I could outsprint him.”
8. Be prepared for some serious stress
“At Milan-San Remo all the stress is in the final 50km but in races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix the chaos starts after 100km with the first cobbled sections and climbs. It is just crazy, everybody wants to be in the front, and people are crashing left and right and fighting for position.
"The constant stress makes it really hard. When you fight for your place for a short time the speed goes up almost to the speed of a sprint. In the Tour a sprinter might do one or two sprints in a day but in this you have to do 20 sprints during the day. It is very demanding on the body and the head to fight for so many hours.”
9. You get rewarded with saddle sores
“Because of all the cobbles at Paris-Roubaix mostly you struggle with saddle sores the next day but mainly you are just tired. I don’t feel back pain or stuff like that because I am normally a robust guy but it hurts for sure. I don’t like the flat cobbles very much but the cobbled climbs are not so big a problem for me. Paris-
"Roubaix is a very cool race with all the history and the way you finish in the old velodrome. You know you are doing a race which has been going for over 100 years so it is very special. Every time I have felt good there I have got a puncture or something has happened but maybe my luck will change next time.”
10. Celebrate with drinks on a luxurious yacht
“When I won Milan-San Remo we all celebrated on the yacht of Igor Makarov (the Russian businessman who created Kristoff’s Katusha cycling team in 2008). The whole team was there except the guys who had to rush off to the airport so it was very cool. When I won the Tour of Flanders I bought myself a Breitling watch as a gift. Every time I look at the time I think about my victory.
"The Classics are so hard and in the middle of a race it is easy to think, s***, this is bad. But when you win those feelings are what make the celebrations even better.”
Alexander Kristoff was speaking at Rouleur Classic - a celebration of road cycling. This year’s event will take place at Victoria House London from 2–4 November