“It’s his point of view, his words, his life – I’m not interested in anything about that. I think he’s a great champion – he won seven Tours de France, the world [road] championship… he’s a great rider. But just behind every rider must be a person, and in that respect, maybe he needs to learn something more.”
No guesses for working out who Carlos Sastre was referring to at the Cervélo TestTeam press conference Friday in Monaco. The defending Tour de France champion had been asked about Lance Armstrong’s comments in a recently-published book, gushingly entitled, ‘Lance Armstrong: The World’s Greatest Champion’.
Certain extracts of the book have spread like wildfire on the Internet, particularly in reference to remarks Armstrong made about last year’s Tour de France. “I'll kick their asses,” he told author John Wilcockson in a conversation soon after the 2008 Tour, discussing his planned comeback. “The Tour was a bit of a joke this year. I've got nothing against Sastre… or Christian Vande Velde. Christian's a nice guy, but finishing fifth in the Tour de France? Come on!”
Honesty and humility appear to make Sastre a more likeable figure among the press than cycling fans, who tend to gravitate towards stars with more boisterous, larger-than-life personalities. And for this reason, the innocuous meeting room used for the press conference at the Novotel Monaco – a modest, by Tour de France standard, three-star hotel that lacked the bells and whistles of some bigger budget teams – was far too small.
Among a press corps that numbers more than a thousand-strong for the 2009 Tour de France, just 30 chairs were allocated, but Cervélo press officer Geert Broekhuizen could’ve easily done with twice that number. Still, it made for an intimate setting, that contrast starkly to the one that will exist when Sastre rolls down the ramp on Saturday for the first of 21 consecutive torture tests, beginning with a leg-sapping, lung-busting, 15.5-kilometre individual time trial among the glitz and glamour that is Monaco.
At the front of the room, Cervélo TestTeam’s semi-circle comprised of captains Sastre and Norwegian sprinter Thor Hushovd, the green jersey champion of 2005, as well as team owner Gerard Vroomen and Broekhuizen at the head table. These four were flanked either side by seven other men who, over the following three weeks, will aim to position their leaders in the best possible place for success.
For a team whose life began just six months ago, it must be a daunting proposition: attempting to take two of the three most coveted jerseys at the largest annual sporting event in the world. However, Vroomen doesn’t seem fazed, even though the idea seemed “crazy” at first.
“It’s pretty unique,” Vroomen admitted. “In the last 40 years, a bike company hasn’t owned a cycling team. 12 months ago, we hadn’t even thought about that; when we started thinking about it, we thought it was a really crazy idea, a really stupid idea. Maybe it was but we did it anyway.
“For me personally at Cervélo, we’re not desperate to win the Tour de France this year. If, in the end, Carlos rides the Tour that he’s completely happy with and he’s the fastest in the end, great; if there’s a couple of riders faster than him, it makes no difference to me, and I’m sure Carlos’ life won’t change after that because there’s more to life than that. But for us, the Tour is already a success because we’re here.”
Maybe Sastre thought the idea of jumping the now-Saxo Bank ship – once the world’s number one cycling team – was a crazy idea, but like Vroomen, he did it anyway. And to enter the Tour with a two-pronged strategy, with a group of domestiques dedicated to both, instead of a team focused around one leader - thought to be the modern day, tried and tested formula used by Armstrong during his previous seven Tours - demonstrates how Cervélo continues to drive against the grain.
“It’s one team for Thor and for me – it’s not just half the team for Thor and half of the team is for me. We will do fine,” said Sastre with typical calmness, seemingly unaffected by the enormous hype surrounding this year’s Grande Boucle.
“It’s our decision,” he stressed, “that’s why I decided to join this team, to build this team with Thor and my team-mates, and of course the owners of Cervélo.
“I am like I am. They [my rivals] are like they are. For me, the most important thing is to be ready, have confidence in myself – like I am now – and be confident in my teammates and team in general, and knowing everything is ready before the start. I think I have a strong team for the mountain stages, a strong team for the team time trial, and to take care of me in the flatter stages. I’m happy with the team I have here.”
Sastre may say he’s unchanged compared to yesteryear, but there’ll be one big difference on Saturday: When he’s in the start house, warmed up, legs oiled, breathing deeply and he’ll have the number one dossard of defending champion. Though it seems not to bother this featherweight climber, nor the bookmakers that don’t give the Madrid native much of a chance – right now, he’s at 20-1 – with Contador, Armstrong, Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Denis Menchov at far better odds to take cycling’s golden crown.
Asked if the competition to take the title is stiffer this time around, Sastre told Cyclingnews: “The Tour de France is never easy, because with big names, small names, or whatever you want to call it, because I have so much respect for everyone who starts this race, the race is always hard. The race is almost 3,500 kilometres, windy, cold, hot, mountains, huge sprints, a lot of stress… to win a race like this one is not easy for anyone.
“Last year I realised a dream,” he said, “and this year I want to make that dream [come true] again. I’m here for a fight.”
Lance Armstrong is sure to give him one.