“You are born a climber, it’s not something you can choose,” Carlos Sastre says. “My personality is hard like a rock, it suits me.” The lights of London twinkle and dim beneath the 31st floor of Broadgate Tower. This is where Sastre feels most comfortable: in the high places of this world.
“It wasn’t like going to my bed at night as a normal climber and waking up as the best in the world. You must work for it every day, step by step. In my case, this gave me the possibility to fight for the Tour, or the Giro or the Vuelta.
Yet despite being one of the most consistent Grand Tour finishers in history (15 top tens and seven podiums between 2000 and 2010), he is a relative also-ran in the pantheon of cycling’s stars. Perhaps he didn’t have the dominance, the killer acceleration or the looks of a sporting matinee idol. Neither his rise nor fall was abrupt. No, Sastre is seen as Mr. Steady, a gritty, unglamorous fighter, only once a Grand Tour champion. Once was enough.
The Ávila native spent his formative years in the sport as a worker, which shaped his philosophy for life and his style of leadership. “The best way to learn is to start from the bottom… for me, it was beautiful,” he says.
He very nearly didn’t turn professional. His years on the Banesto amateur team were plagued with crashes, broken bones and a hiatus hernia. Once those problems were solved, he gave himself an ultimatum. “I said to myself ‘Carlos, this is your [third and] last season as an amateur. If you become professional this year, you realise your dream; if you don’t, stop cycling’. Because I don’t want to waste my time. And I started winning almost every race.”
Sastre was unafraid to take risks or tough calls. When no offer was forthcoming to turn professional with Banesto, he did it in 1998 with Spanish rivals ONCE instead.
Even as an established star, he signed short contracts, eschewing the advice of managers. “I usually only signed year-by-year because if I do something, that is my value; if I do nothing, I have a different one,” he explains.
As the years progressed, he realised that he was being underrated, despite showing potential with the Mountains classification and eighth overall at the 2000 Vuelta a España.
“The team only worked for me once in four years, at the 2001 Vuelta a Burgos. Manolo [Saiz, team manager] was a bit mad at me for not winning a finish at La Laguna Negra. I said ‘Manolo, you can be angry with me, but today was your fault. I asked you for 25 or 26 [sprocket], and you gave me 23. You said that we are a powerful team: well, I’m not a powerful man. I needed to spin my legs, I needed another gear. It was your fault’.”
That takes some serious cojones. The next day, as a breakaway lingered ahead of a hilltop finish in San Juan del Monte, the ONCE team car pulled alongside Sastre.
“Manolo asked me how I was feeling. ‘Good’, I said. Thirty seconds later, he told my team-mates to chase the escape down. I ended up winning the stage.”
Sastre had already decided to jump ship to CSC, after talking with Bjarne Riis at the 2001 Tour de France. It was the beginning of a special, sometimes spiky, relationship. “Like knives and roses, I don’t know how you say it in English,” he says. “I think we have so much respect for each other, but we have two completely different mentalities. He had experiences in his career, how to train and use the team tactically, and I was in a completely different situation.
“I always said to him: ‘I’m not a robot. These instruments are very smart, maybe smarter than me, but in the end, I need to press the button’.
“I’m someone who likes to follow, and train with, my feelings… We talked, maybe we could find a compromise … I think, in the end, he deserved to win the Tour de France. I am the only rider in his team to win the Tour de France, from two different points of view.”
Sastre won rarely, but tended to strike big when he did. His life-changing success came at the 2003 Tour on the Pyrenean climb of Plateau de Bonascre, where he memorably transferred a pacifier, belonging to his baby daughter Claudia, from jersey pocket to his mouth as a victory celebration.
Now 12 years old, Claudia understands the significance. “When we go to certain events, sometimes they have videos of me racing. She’ll see the one with the dummy and shed a few tears because she knows it’s for her.”
That year, Sastre finished ninth overall at the Tour; the following season, he improved to eighth and was sixth at the Vuelta. So when did he start to believe that he could win the Tour de France?
“In 2006. With the Operation Puerto scandal before the race, when Basso was out of the team, everyone was scared, nobody knew what to do. They came to me and said ‘you are the leader’.”
As a pro, Sastre’s nickname was Don Limpio – Mr. Clean – which suggests an acknowledgement that he was doing it without drugs. Originally there as Basso’s super domestique, Sastre needed time to prepare mentally. He feels that he was then given the responsibility of leadership without the team’s belief in him.
“They realised that I could win the Tour de France two days before the finish, when I dropped all the important riders [into Morzine].
“But it was too late. When I asked them for help, the day that Pereiro was 25 minutes ahead with Jens Voigt [stage 13 to Montelimar], I said ‘’Bjarne, we cannot let him take the yellow jersey. He won a stage, he was tenth overall [in 2005], we need to do something. Jens must at least sit on his wheel’.
“And they didn’t listen to me. Jens was pulling full gas, Jens won the stage – well, beautiful for the team, but not for me. Because he put one guy ahead of me in the GC.” Sastre ended up fourth overall, leapfrogged by Andreas Klöden and soon-to-be-banned Floyd Landis in the penultimate stage time-trial.
During his career, Sastre found that whenever he tried to improve his racing against the clock, his ability in the high mountains was affected. That was always his outstanding domain. “I can’t see how Grand Tour racers are also good in one-week or one-day races, because I couldn’t do it,” he says now.
Into 2008, Sastre was ready for the Tour de France like never before. First, he had to wrestle control of the CSC team.
“Normally I’m not a person who does a lot of talking. At the pre-race meeting, I just said ‘I know that I’m ready for this race, I did what I must do, and I feel prepared for getting the maximum’.
“But Frank said the same thing. For Bjarne, it was a good thing, because he had two riders who could do something at the Tour. Bjarne knew that I was more ready than everyone in the team, because I was training with him.”
Protected by the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O’Grady in the first week, he dodged the falls and bunch fractures of the Tour’s first week. When asked for his toughest moment of the race, Sastre pinpoints the descent of the Col de la Bonette into Jausiers on stage 16, where he had to fight his way back to the leaders after getting caught behind a dropped Denis Menchov.
Everything hinged on the following day’s stage over the Galibier and Croix de Fer to Alpe d’Huez. “I was waiting for that moment the whole race,” Sastre recalls. “Bjarne wanted to win everything in this moment. He almost didn’t sleep that night, he came up with 20 tactics, everyone was crazy that day.
“The first thing we agreed was riding to win the stage today. If we wanted to win there, we needed to attack at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez, make a hard race, try to control the race with the team – we had the strongest team that year.
“When we started Alpe d’Huez, I was very tired but knew it was my chance to win and make that dream real. I didn’t think of anything else, I attacked immediately. We couldn’t wait until the last kilometre because we couldn’t do anything if Cadel Evans [had a lead] afterwards for the time-trial.”
He was delighted with the stage win, but the 2-15 advantage over the Australian was an unexpected bonus. After fending off Evans’s challenge against the clock with surprising comfort, ceding just 29 seconds over 53 kilometres, the Tour belonged to Sastre. He arranged a special present for his team-mates.
“A yellow jersey for everyone and a very good bottle of Spanish wine. Everyone has beautiful watches, I wanted to do something different. I thought you can share a bottle of wine with your wife and friends.” But the roses quickly turned to knives with Riis. After a tempestuous 2008 Vuelta, Sastre was off, as the big name signing for the new Cervélo TestTeam.
Several riders have since called the squad as the best of their careers, primarily for its close bond or forward-looking approach to racing innovations. Sastre doesn’t quite agree. “I think the philosophy of the team was great; it was very good for the media too. On the inside, everyone wanted to pull in the beginning, but the first year, there was one person who made the hard decisions: that person was riding a bike, was virtually a sports director and manager too, and this person was very tired afterwards.”
Occasionally, usually when touching on a negative opinion, he will speak around the issue, hinting at something without being clear. This person was Carlos Sastre. “I felt then that the philosophy of the team was beautiful, for the image, but it wasn’t working [practically],” he continues. “I was doing a lot of things for the team, I flew to Cervélo in Switzerland to have meetings; after every stage, I’d do interviews, and I didn’t have any time for myself. Carlos Sastre was a rider, and doing many more things besides.”
That considered, his third place Giro finish and stage wins on Monte Petrano and Vesuvius were all the more impressive. But the commitments left him frazzled. “When I arrived at the 2009 Tour de France, I was completely finished. That was not what I expected; when I had my own goal, I couldn’t be there. I said ‘okay, this is the last time I do all that’. I tried to be a kind of Superman and couldn’t be.”
Sastre’s career was virtually done. He moved onto Geox-TMC in 2011, retiring in the winter without fanfare, going straight into opening a jewellery business. Even after a few years out of the sport, how does he feel it has changed?
“There’s no respect between teams or riders anymore. I feel sometimes that many teams are fighting for everything because they’re afraid of losing it all. I like it when you can say ‘this is my goal, I want to fight for it 100 per cent’. But now cycling is part of a business and you want to take everything to have a successful one.”
There’s the dark side of that business too. Six years since his Tour victory, Sastre’s unsullied name in his generation’s Grand Tour standings sticks out among a rotten batch of asterisks and amendments. How has he reacted to the Armstrong and the doping admissions of recent years? “It’s a lot better than before. As I’ve said previously, we cannot change people. In the bunch, there’s good people and some that always try to flick the system because they know maybe they don’t otherwise have the chance to be a star.”
He likens it to driving at 200km/h on a road with 100km/h limit. One day, they might get caught. “Cycling is an effect of our society… it’s a question of life, or habits, or people.“
I ask if he has any regrets: a strange question for someone like Sastre, who lives firmly in the present. Of course not: how could he possibly change anything?
Besides, why would he? Look around at the more celebrated champions of his era – more explosive on the bike, more precipitous in their downfalls; public condemnation, drink driving, divorce. Carlos Sastre, the least remembered recent Tour winner, also seems like the most content.