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Winner of the 2015 Tour Down Under
Carlos Sastre (CSC) celebrates as he crosses the finish line of at Ax-3 Domaines in the 2003 Tour de France.
Former Tour winner assesses Vuelta contenders
He may have retired from the sport two years ago but 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre continues to follow cycling as a fan. Having just returned from a holiday with his family that included following the first four days of the Vuelta a España, Sastre lined out his predictions for the overall battle in this year's race.
"So far the race has been spectacular and interesting with a new leader nearly every day. We saw the first four stages and now we're back home but we were there live to watch the race. It was just a holiday," Sastre told Cyclingnews.
Sastre tipped Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez as the main overall contenders but added that one of his former rivals, Ivan Basso, could have an impact on the final result.
"There are number of riders that can do well and fight for the GC in my opinion. I think Valverde and Rodriguez will be there. Also Ivan Basso. I'm not sure he can win but he is going to be up there for sure. Nibali to me looks strong too, maybe not as strong as he was in the Giro d'Italia but he'll be in contention, certainly. For me, Nibali, Valverde and Joaquim will be the ones fighting for the victory."
Rodriguez and Sastre rode together on the ONCE team in 2000 and 2001. Back then, Sastre was just starting to show his grand tour pedigree with 20th place in the Tour de France while Rodriguez was a neo-professional with his sights firmly on one-day racing.
"I was on the same team as him for just one year, maybe two. As a young professional he didn't race that much with me but it was clear even back then that he was a good rider. Everyone thought he was going to be good for the one-day races and he's proved that in races like Liège and Flèche, but nobody expected him to be a three-week rider because we thought he was too small for the time trials but he's improved so much."
Rodriguez is now a genuine grand tour contender in his own right having finished on the podium in all three major tours in the last two seasons. Top spot still eludes him, however, although Sastre believes that within the next two seasons his former teammate can complete his ambition.
"He deserves to win a grand tour. He's a very good and professional rider and he's got a good opportunity this year with the eleven stages that finish uphill. His grand tour win will come this year or next and he'll get the win he deserves at some stage."
While Rodriguez, Valverde and Alberto Contador – missing from this year's Vuelta – are all the wrong side of 30, Sastre believes that Mike Nieve (Euskaltel) could be the next Spanish stage racing star.
"He's riding well and he's talented," Sastre told Cyclingnews. "He's been able to win important stages in the Giro and Vuelta and he was having a good Tour this year. He could be the only one because if you look at Anton for example, he was doing well a few years ago but I'm not sure what's really happened to him in the last two years. He's no longer improving, so Nieve for me is the one coming through who can challenge in the future years."
Now removed from the life of a professional athlete, Sastre rides merely for pleasure and admits that his family keep him busy enough.
"I'm doing maybe ten to fifteen days of racing a year and I'm just enjoying my cycling these days. My time, that's over, but I still like to watch the sport and be as near as I can to the sport. I'm certainly happy with my new life and I don't miss cycling as a rider. Nowadays I'm taking care of my children and they keep me busy.”