Carlos Sastre – the gritty, unglamorous fighter

Posted on

Being a climber is either in your blood or it isn’t, Sastre explains. But Mr Clean, as he was known amongst his team, only ever needed to win one Grand Tour

Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe
Carlos Sastre



“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.

Read: Tour de France – Robert Millar on form, feeling and the fundamentals of climbing

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.

Read: Tour de France – final day time-trials and the legacy of Greg LeMond

“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’.”

Carlos Sastre

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.”

Gallery: Eddy Merckx – Photographs from a family album

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?

Carlos Sastre

“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.



135 thoughts on “Carlos Sastre – the gritty, unglamorous fighter”

  1. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you? Plz answer back as I’m looking to design my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. appreciate it

  2. I really appreciate this post. I’ve been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You’ve made my day! Thanks again

  3. Great items from you, man. I have consider your stuff previous to and you are simply extremely fantastic. I actually like what you have bought here, certainly like what you’re stating and the way in which in which you assert it. You are making it enjoyable and you continue to care for to keep it wise. I cant wait to read far more from you. That is really a tremendous site.

  4. I haven’t checked in here for a while because I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are good quality so I guess I’ll add you back to my everyday bloglist. You deserve it my friend 🙂

  5. I was looking at some of your articles on this site and I believe this internet site is really instructive! Keep on posting .

  6. whoah this blog is fantastic i love reading your posts. Keep up the great work! You know, many people are searching around for this information, you can help them greatly.

  7. I’ve been exploring for a bit for any high quality articles or blog posts on this kind of area . Exploring in Yahoo I at last stumbled upon this web site. Reading this information So i’m happy to convey that I have a very good uncanny feeling I discovered just what I needed. I most certainly will make certain to do not forget this website and give it a glance on a constant basis.

  8. My spouse and i were very fulfilled Louis managed to conclude his research from your ideas he made from your very own weblog. It’s not at all simplistic to just continually be giving for free concepts which often other people may have been making money from. And we also know we need the blog owner to be grateful to for this. All the illustrations you’ve made, the straightforward website navigation, the friendships you can help foster – it’s got all terrific, and it is helping our son and the family feel that this subject matter is fun, and that’s very mandatory. Thank you for the whole thing!

  9. whoah this weblog is wonderful i really like reading your articles. Keep up the great paintings! You already know, many persons are looking round for this info, you could help them greatly.

  10. I’m not sure exactly why but this website is loading incredibly slow for me. Is anyone else having this problem or is it a problem on my end? I’ll check back later and see if the problem still exists.

  11. After study several of the web sites for your internet site now, and that i really like your way of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark site list and will be checking back soon. Pls take a look at my site too and figure out what you think.

  12. We are a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your website provided us with valuable information to work on. You’ve done a formidable job and our entire community will be thankful to you.

  13. Hey, you used to write fantastic, but the last few posts have been kinda boring… I miss your tremendous writings. Past several posts are just a little out of track! come on!

  14. You ought to take part in a contest for one of the greatest sites on the
    net. I’m going to highly recommend this web site!

  15. This could be the appropriate blog for wants to discover this topic. You are aware of much its virtually tough to argue along (not that I actually would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for some time. Great stuff, just wonderful!

  16. Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Thank you, However I am going through issues with your RSS. I don’t know why I can’t join it. Is there anybody else having identical RSS issues? Anybody who knows the answer can you kindly respond? Thanx!!

  17. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Genuinely rarely should i encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you may have hit the nail about the head. Your idea is outstanding; the problem is an element that insufficient persons are speaking intelligently about. I am delighted we came across this during my look for something with this.

  18. Greetings from Los angeles! I’m bored at work so I decided to
    browse your site on my iphone during lunch break.
    I really like the info you provide here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.
    I’m amazed at how quick your blog loaded on my cell phone
    .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways,
    wonderful blog!

  19. This design is spectacular! You most certainly know how
    to keep a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Fantastic
    job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented
    it. Too cool!

  20. Today, I went to the beach front with my children. I found a
    sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is
    completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

  21. It’s remarkable to pay a quick visit this site and reading the views of
    all mates regarding this article, while I am also zealous of getting familiarity.

  22. Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after browsing through some
    of the post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely glad I found it
    and I’ll be bookmarking and checking back often!

  23. Attractive section of content. I just stumbled upon your
    web site and in accession capital to assert that I acquire in fact enjoyed account your blog posts.
    Anyway I’ll be subscribing to your feeds and even I achievement you access consistently rapidly.

  24. great issues altogether, you simply won a logo new reader.
    What might you suggest in regards to your put up
    that you simply made some days in the past?

    Any sure?

  25. It is not my first time to pay a quick visit this web
    site, i am browsing this web site dailly and take pleasant facts from here daily.

  26. Hello, Neat post. There’s a problem together with your website in web explorer, would test this?
    IE nonetheless is the marketplace chief and a large component to other folks
    will pass over your excellent writing because of
    this problem.

  27. Hey, you used to write magnificent, but the last few posts have been kinda boring? I miss your super writings. Past few posts are just a little bit out of track! come on!

  28. Lol, My laptop died while I was checking this site previous time I was here. And for the last two days I have been searching for this weblog, so glad I came across it again!

  29. You see, this attitude bugs me so much, and I haven’t even criticized some of the weird stuff they present us in this movie.

  30. Thats deninitely true what you have said. I agree with what you have stated. You made the points looks easy, thats what we all are expecting. Will be subscribing your feeds. do keep updating with such topics.

  31. Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam comments? If so how do you protect against it, any plugin or anything you can advise? I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy so any assistance is very much appreciated.

  32. Whoa! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a totally different topic but it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Excellent choice of colors!

  33. I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this web site. I am hoping the same high-grade web site post from you in the upcoming as well. Actually your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get my own blog now. Really the blogging is spreading its wings quickly. Your write up is a great example of it.

  34. Howdy I am so grateful I found your blog, I
    really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Digg for
    something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like to say thanks a lot for a remarkable post
    and a all round enjoyable blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t
    have time to browse it all at the minute but I have
    saved it and also added in your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be
    back to read a lot more, Please do keep up the great job.

  35. I was looking at some of your articles on this site and I believe this internet site is really instructive! Keep on posting .

  36. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Genuinely rarely should i encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you may have hit the nail about the head. Your idea is outstanding; the problem is an element that insufficient persons are speaking intelligently about. I am delighted we came across this during my look for something with this.

  37. obviously like your web-site but you need to check the spelling on several of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling problems and I find it very bothersome to tell the truth nevertheless I’ll surely come back again.

  38. I was looking at some of your articles on this site and I believe this internet site is really instructive! Keep on posting .

  39. Sweet blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!
    Many thanks

  40. Howdy! Do you know if they make any plugins to assist with SEO?
    I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I’m not seeing very
    good results. If you know of any please share. Cheers!

  41. My brother recommended I might like this web site. He was entirely
    right. This post truly made my day. You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for
    this info! Thanks!

Comments are closed.