Carlos Sastre has thought long and hard about last year’s disappointing defence of his Tour de France title. At the Giro d’Italia he took two mountain stage wins and fourth overall, later revised to third with Danilo Di Luca’s exclusion for doping. The veteran Spanish rider looked ready to give a spirited ride at the Tour. But it never happened. He finished 17th. He was off the pace, never in contention.
More than anything, he says, his failure to contend came down to one thing. “You know that women can do two things at once but men can only do one? Well, last year I tried to do two things at the same time and I ended up attacking myself. It was wrong to try to do two things at once.”
Those two things were preparing for the defence of the Tour title while at the same time being heavily involved in establishing the Cervélo TestTeam, for whom he is the marquee rider. “There were a lot of events and meetings,” he explains, “competition and training and all kinds of things going on with the team… It was all too much. But it was a time when I didn’t really have an option but to do this.
"I decided to join this team, to build this project with [Cervélo boss] Gérard Vroomen and all the others involved. We needed to push it in the right direction to develop the whole project. Now we’ve got a real project off the ground everything is more in balance, so now I’m a bike rider again and only a bike rider. I’m thinking like a bike rider.”
How bad did it get? Sastre confesses it couldn’t have got much worse. “It did reach the point when I thought at one moment that last year would be my final year. During the Tour de France, I had no energy. I didn’t have any reason to be sad but I felt a kind of sadness.
"You feel like you’re empty. You can’t give any more because you have already given everything. When you feel like that, you don’t have time to analyse what you’ve done or how and why you did it.
"It becomes difficult to think clearly. I needed time to get back to the right way of thinking, so that I could focus on what I needed to."
During his successful stint with Team CSC, Sastre revealed his tendency to think deeply about the sport in a regular column for Procycling. Little seems to have changed as he still insists that the psychological side of being an athlete is the toughest aspect to control. “That was the hardest part to restore. When you do a sport as a career, you are always pretty well prepared physically. You take care of yourself by looking after what you eat and what you do, so that means that, sooner or later, you can come back.
"But mentally, it’s more difficult because you can’t sleep when your mind is whirring with all kinds of things. You end up not being able to think in the way that an athlete needs to and it took me a great deal of time to relax.”
In a bid to find that freedom to relax, Sastre opted for a new tack. Rather than follow his traditional route from the Tour to the Vuelta, he went on holiday for the first time in 10 years.
“For me, the best way to relax is to spend time with my family and have fun. To do things like going to the Formula 1 Grand Prix to see Fernando Alonso, going to a rally with Mikko Hirvonen, to do all kinds of different things... I like and that I couldn’t do before because I was so busy. It gave me the time to take care of my health, to spend time with my family and my children. That made me so happy,” he explains.
After a long break from the bike, Sastre knows it could take some time to reach his best competitive level again but he’s unconcerned by the hard work ahead. “I needed a long break as I was almost finished mentally and physically. And now I’m here again. It might take me a long time to get into a good state in terms of condition but at least I feel I’ve got power and energy and I feel better.”
Contador Armstrong sandwich
The Cervélo team leader is also more relaxed when it comes to discussing the insulting way he felt he was treated last year while racing as the defending Tour champion. As the media focused on the conflict between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, Sastre’s status as the rider wearing number one in the Tour peloton was almost totally forgotten.
The worst moment for him was his pre-Tour press conference when questions focused primarily on likely scenarios involving his two Astana rivals and not at all on Sastre’s thoughts on defending his title.
“I think the media created a battle between two riders and the rest of us were brought into that battle. After 10 days of racing, all they were talking about was, ‘Armstrong said this, Contador said that…’ It was like schoolchildren gossiping,” he recalls.
Sastre was also dismayed by the lack of respect he was shown by Armstrong when the Texan returned to the sport. “He said he came back because I had won the Tour de France, which I think was really disrespectful to me and to Christian Vande Velde and all the other riders," he says.
"It wasn’t correct. Everyone makes mistakes. But if I made a mistake and said something bad about him, I would go to him, say it was my mistake and say sorry. What I wouldn’t do is just say things to a camera and not say anything to the person concerned. He just spoke into a TV camera, he didn’t say anything to me. He just apologised on camera but I don’t watch television or go on the internet. I don’t read newspapers every day.
"We need that respect because we work together every day. We need that respect because it’s our sport, it’s our work and although we all want to get the best results, in the end we all work together. He never showed me that respect.”
He was clearly bemused by Armstrong’s comments because his relationship with the seven-time Tour champion had always been good. “If I make a mistake, then I’m happy to pay for it. But with Lance, there was no history.”
Sastre wanted to speak to Armstrong about his comments but decided to wait until the last day of the Tour before doing so. “I didn’t want to go to him before that because I wanted to let him concentrate on the race. I didn’t want to disturb him.
"But as we were heading towards the Champs Élysées, I told him, ‘What you said was not right and you never apologised to me. You were talking about me, you were angry with me and talking very badly about me, you were furious with me but I don’t know why. I always gave you my respect.
"When they said that you were coming back, I said, ‘He’s a wonderful rider, he’s the best, and he can be the best again. He’s Armstrong, he can do whatever he wants.’ I showed you a lot of respect but you never showed any respect to me.’
“He listened to me and he apologised to me. He was correct in what he said. He understood what I said to him and I like to think that he agrees with it, that we’ve wiped our hands of it, that it’s all over. I hope that things are normal between us again.”
Six times a top-10 finisher at the Tour in nine appearances, Sastre says it was hard to go there last year as defending champion but not be able to compete at the front of the race. Yet he insists that the Tour wasn’t a totally miserable experience. “I had a good plan but
I didn’t have the power to put it into action. When things are like that, you feel frustrated and don’t know why things aren’t happening for you. You have a lot of questions but few answers.
“But when the Tour de France was over and I had time to analyse what had happened, I thought that Tour was a great experience for me. It was a hard experience but I went through the problems that I had and the event taught me a lot of things about myself yet again. And even without things going the right way for Carlos Sastre, the team got two wonderful victories with Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler, plus the green jersey, so it was a great experience.”
Can he win the Giro?
As for this year’s Tour, Sastre maintains he won’t make a decision on whether he’ll ride or not until the Giro d’Italia is behind him. “I’ve got great memories of the Giro from last year with those two stage wins and that’s one good reason for going back there. But also it’s a really hard race with lots of high mountains so it’s good for climbers like me.
"The thought of tackling climbs like Plan de Corones and the Mortirolo gives me huge motivation. I will ride easy up to the Giro and be ready for that. After that, I will think about the rest of the season. I want to be ready to win at the Giro.”
Can he win? He’s not sure, but the key thing, he says, is to be ready. “I certainly want to feel like I felt last year going into the race: ready to fight. I want to be comfortable before the start and know that I’m ready for everything, ready to take my chance.”
Sastre gives the sense that he’s been seduced by the Giro as a race apart and that he loves it because of that. “It’s a crazy race. There are attacks from the beginning to the end. It’s so difficult to control and it’s not going to be easy to get a result there.
"But circumstances like that give me extra motivation because it’s so difficult to control things. A situation like that can teach me about what might happen in the Tour de France if I decide to go on to the Tour because the Tour this year will be a completely different affair to last year.
“Armstrong will have a big team, Contador will have a big team. Cadel Evans, Menchov, the Schleck brothers, Nibali and Kreuziger, all these riders will have strong teams. But if events go my way at the Giro d’Italia, it might enable me to approach the Tour de France in a different way.
"We know how Lance, for example, will race. I don’t think he’s going to change his style compared to the last six or seven Tours de France. I think that he will try to control the Tour with the strongest team ever, so we need to find the way to break the system, and the Giro can help me to do that.”
Eyebrows were raised when Sastre delayed his return to racing until the Volta a Catalunya in late March, then raised even further when he indicated the Volta would be his only race prior to the Giro. But Sastre believes it is better to go into what is undeniably the toughest race of the year, in terms of the route, under-raced and fresh in order to reach top form in the decisive final week.
“I’ll use the Tour of Catalonia to see how my training is going and what I have to improve on to arrive at the Giro in the best condition,” he explains. “It is a very important test for me, because I can see everything I have done well or what I still need to do.”
He talks positively about how his Cervélo team will be able to help him if he is in contention. “Last year, they showed how strong they are and I’m not worried about them. I think our riders are more experienced, that they are a stronger block.”
Just as importantly, though, Sastre’s experience has broadened too. He’s learned lessons from last year’s Tour and truly believes that all the doubt and disappointment has made him a better bike rider. “Now it’s just Carlos Sastre, bike racer. The real me."