Cycling is a sport full of silly little stories, transmitted by mutters in the press corps or foreign-language websites that never transcend their bubble. Many of them can never be pursued. At the Tour de France especially, there’s a whole bunch of stories to tell every day of the race, and you have to be rational about how you spend your time.
Last week, I was presented with a question that needed answering. Was it relevant to the Tour de France? It was not. Was it relevant to the year in which we find ourselves? Again, no. But did it make me laugh out loud? Very much so. Rational time-use be damned.
That question was this: “did a squirrel fall on Alexander Kristoff’s head at the 2013 Tour of Oman?”
Now, tell me you’re not immediately invested in the answer.
Each story passes first a sniff-test: does this have the ring of truth to it? I did not think of Oman as a particularly squirrelly destination, so this seemed fairly out there on the spectrum of possible cycling-adjacent animal mishaps.
Counterpoint: we had a specific man, body part, race, and year. These were compelling leads.
Further fuel to the fire: this tip-off had been handed off to me by a colleague who apparently knows my beat pretty well, and had been mentioned in passing to him by two separate sources who’d actually been there. There was a clear way to get to the bottom of this – a chat with the Stavanger Stallion himself – but I would have one shot only, and it could go very wrong.
Time to have a rummage about the internet for some background, honing in on three key lines of enquiry.
Q: Was Alexander Kristoff at the Tour of Oman in 2013? A: Yes – in fact, every Tour of Oman from 2010-2019. Couldn’t get enough of the place, and quite a prolific winner, especially through the Katusha years when he was one of the very best cyclists on the planet.
Q: Does Oman have squirrels? A: Simple question, tricky answer. A 2020 journal article scintillatingly titled ‘A preliminary study on the status of invasive palm squirrels in Oman’ points at the “possibility” of the three-striped Indian palm squirrel (Funambulus palmarum, for the fact fans) in the country, but as of 2020 it had only been sighted 11 times at seven locations in northern Oman (although, the journal article soberly reports, they are “well-established in the adjacent UAE” and sold at pet shops in Oman).
Did one of these invasive palm squirrels land on Alexander Kristoff’s head one time, seven years earlier? Long shot, but not impossible.
Q: Would any of the primary witnesses who had allegedly seen it happen talk to me? A: Yes.
Enter Sadbdh O’Shea of Velo, who told me I had the year wrong – it was actually 2015. “I was trying to speak with Roman Kreuziger when it happened,” she reminisced. “It was the day that they cancelled the stage because of the heat. I can’t 100% say it was a squirrel, but a creature fell out of a tree and onto Alexander Kristoff.”
More objectively funny details: “I remember him yelping and then exclaiming about an animal falling on him. It was the yelp that drew my attention. It was before the stage and we were by the sea. They actually moved the start from there because it was really windy, and then the stage was cancelled. It was a very weird day – Fabian Cancellara also accidentally punched my recorder while he was having an argument with Eddy Merckx, and sent it flying down the road.”
This was going great, but I didn’t yet have a conclusive answer, and it was clear that there was only one person I could get it from. At the start of stage 5 in Pau, I wait for Alexander Kristoff at the Uno-X team bus.
He’s not always a particularly forthcoming interviewee, Kristoff – quite stoic, straight-down-the-line – but I catch him on a good day. It is his birthday, and he hadn’t even smashed a cake into the faces of Norwegian TV for the occasion. That in itself is already a pretty loopy direction for a Tour de France interview to take, but I want to go further.
“I have a weird question for you,” I begin. “Cast your mind back to 2015, the Tour of Oman, where a stage was cancelled …”
Kristoff nods gamely, a glint in his eye, picking up the story. “We are standing under a bridge,” he reminisces.
“And did a squirrel then fall onto your head from a tree or something?”
A surprised raise of the eyebrows. “Yes … but, well, it was … a rat.” This was delivered with a showmanlike roll of the R, a slight pause, a heavy and horrified emphasis on the last two words. “A rat?!” “Yes!” He starts laughing for quite a while. We are having a lovely time.
“What is your reaction when a rat lands on your head at the Tour of Oman?”
“I don’t remember … It was just – poof,” he says, acting out the impact. “It landed on my head and then it was crawling down, and I was like, ‘What the fuck! It’s a rat.’” He laughs again.
“A squirrel would be a bit cuter than a rat,” I observe.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Oh, I was a bit surprised … but the doctor was more scared if I got …” – he searches for the word – “rabies or something.”
We are well outside the realms of a conventional cycling interview now, but I push on. I don’t have a choice.
“What do you do with the rat? Did you grab it or something?” Kristoff is no-nonsense, efficient, in his response. “Yeah, I grabbed it off my back.” And then what? “I threw it. Down on the ground.” Questioningly, I mime a big throw, over toward the Ag2r bus. “No, not so far. Just a little bit.”
I have more questions, and he’s got more to get off his chest. “I didn’t know what it was – I thought it was some nuts or something, and then …” he continues, before I interject with a thought that’s suddenly occurred to me. It was a very hot day – was the rat still alive? “Of course it was alive!”, Kristoff responds, mock-offended. “It wasn’t so hot at the start, if I remember right. It was a lot of wind so we were sitting under a tree and the tree was blowing and … I think the wind, the wind brought it down.”
I’ve got what I came for, but I ask one last question. “Have any other animals fallen on you over the course of your long professional career?”
“No, that was the only time.” Any other strange things? “No, not really.” This was a highlight, I suggest. “The highlight and the lowlight of the strange things, I would say,” he says, smiling broadly.
We share a minute or so more of small-talk before he heads into the team bus, and the moment is gone. I had dropped a question on Alexander Kristoff like a rat from a tree, and he had grabbed it.
Which brings us back to the central question that sent me down this deranged line of enquiry.
Did a squirrel fall on Alexander Kristoff’s head at the 2013 Tour of Oman? No. Myth busted. Categorically false on multiple counts.
Did a rat fall on Alexander Kristoff’s head at the 2015 Tour of Oman? Absolutely.
What did you think of this story?