News feature: Carlos Sastre, January 14, 2007
He's been steadily improving year after year and now Carlos Sastre is heading one of the world's most prominent teams. This last week, Shane Stokes of Cyclingnews spoke to him in Madrid, discussing his new role, his schedule for 2007 and his thoughts on what is one of the most innovative races yet seen in cycling.
CSC leader Carlos Sastre has set out his programme for 2007, giving a run-down of the races he will ride as he builds up to what he hopes will be a big ride in the Tour de France.
"We will have our next training camp in San Francisco and then I will go back to Spain and begin my season in the Vuelta a Murcia," he told Cyclingnews at Wednesday's launch of the Abu Dhabi Cycling Race of Champions in Madrid.
"[Last year] I had a new, stable basis in my life and I think this was the most crucial thing for me." - Sastre reflects.
"The plan is that I will do a Spanish programme during March and April and then at the end of that month, I will go to Belgium for Flèche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, then ride the Tour of Romandie. After that, I will have a small break and then start my preparation for the Tour de France by doing the Tour of Switzerland. The Tour [de France] is my big goal for the season."
Much has changed within CSC since this time last year. When the team met at their Italian training camp in January 2006, the undisputed leader was Ivan Basso, the rider who many saw as the most likely heir to Lance Armstrong's throne of Tour champion. Basso had previously finished third and second in the French race and underlined his form by decisively winning the 2006 Giro d'Italia. However, his implication in Operación Puerto saw him firstly excluded from the Tour team and then, three and a half months later, parting company with the Danish squad.
Sastre, meanwhile, was attracting all the right sort of attention. In June he rode selflessly for Basso in the Giro, then in July and September he finished fourth in both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. Although the effects of riding five Grand Tours in a row was starting to take its toll on him towards the end of the Spanish race, he had shown in the Tour that he was one of the strongest and most aggressive riders in the mountains, thus taking his career to new heights.
Sastre is 31 years of age but his improvements in 2006 have led to the team declaring that he will be their number one for the Tour. That brings with it a lot of pressure, but he said that he is ready for the challenge.
"For me, last year was very important. I had a new, stable basis in my life and I think this was the most crucial thing for me. I have relaxed and we will see how I get on in the future. I feel motivated, I feel fresh and for me this is the most important thing."
Last month, he spent time with the rest of the CSC team at their training camp in South Africa. He is pleased with how things went there. "It was good. For me, it was quite busy... I had a lot of things to do down there. But it was nice; the whole team was together and we prepared for the season, deciding the calendar, the equipment and everything. Now we have everything worked out before the start of the season.
"We had the survival trip the first three days and after that, we had some training on the bikes. Both individual stuff and training with partners. Almost every day you had time set aside for training, with some riders doing a bit more."
CSC prides itself on a strong team spirit and the affable Spaniard said that the mood is good once again. "I think that we have a really nice atmosphere. Everybody is very motivated for the start of the season and I think that as soon as the team gets going at the Tour Down Under, we will see many good things. If we start on a good basis, I think the time ahead will be nice."
Sastre missed the launch of the Vuelta a España due to the South African trip but he was the guest of honour at Thursday's launch of the Abu Dhabi race. His strong performances in 2006 have won him many new fans, and he is a big hit with the media (and race organisers) due to his relaxed and friendly nature.
Being present at the unveiling of the new multi-million euro race gave him the chance to see the full details before his colleagues. He liked what he saw.
"I think it is something new, something special, something important. It is the first time in the cycling world that they have organised an event of these characteristics. I think it is like a present for all the teams who can go to this race. It means that the end of the season will be good for the riders and the team."
Abu Dhabi Race of Champions
The Abu Dhabi Race of Champions will take place in the United Arab Emirates in early November. That's normally the time when pro bike riders have their feet up following a demanding season, but there are a number of strong incentives to ensure that the very best take part. First off, the winner's prize of one million US dollars (currently at €776,000) is far greater than that seen in any other race in cycling, even the Tour de France. Secondly, teams will each get $75,000 for taking part, with invitations going to the winners of the individual and team classifications from the Tours de France, Giro and Vuelta. Three wildcard teams will also be selected.
Thirdly, there is the parcours. In order to settle the concerns of those who think a big race that late in the year is too much to ask, the organisers have limited the total distance to approximately 200 kilometres. The flat opening stage and the following day's race to the summit of the area's highest mountain (less than 1200m) will be between 90 and 100 kilometres long, while the concluding time trial will be about 20 km. The three stage race will take place over four days, with the TT being preceded by a rest day.
What's more, the balance between competition and recuperation will be improved by the fact that the organisation will allow each team of eight riders to bring a total of twelve guests, allowing wives/girlfriends to accompany their partners free of charge on what will be an unusual, but stimulating, trip.
Sastre says that all these factors together result in a winning formula. "It sounds very good. Usually at the end of October or beginning of November, the season has ended for all of us. But I think the prize list is an extra motivation; you don't have any race in Europe which gives you such an amount of prize money to win, so it will be a real incentive.
"Secondly, you get to visit the area. All of us can see on the television that this is a special country in many ways. I think we will have a nice holiday with our families there."
On-bike time will be relatively short due to the distances concerned, but Sastre feels that a good competition is nevertheless guaranteed. "It will be difficult with these three stages – you have a flat stage, a mountain stage and then a time trial. You therefore have a stage for each type of rider and, for sure, I think the prize money will be really attractive for all of us."
The Spaniard is strong uphill and also in races against the clock so, if he has the form, he could be one of those gunning for the million dollar jackpot. "If I can finish the season with the Tour of Lombardy, then for sure I will try," he said. "It represents 15 days more in the season but if the weather is okay [in Europe], you can maintain a nice level until then. Also, the longest stage is 100 kilometres or so."
Of course, the thought of being invited as one of the winners of cycling's three Grand Tours also appeals. "If I am there next November I think that will be nice because it will mean that I did something important during the season," he concludes.