When Carlos Sastre retired at the end of 2011, the cycling world barely batted an eyelid. A few months later, ProCycling met Sastre to ask whether recent events will prompt a re-assessment of his legacy.
"Nothing is easy in life. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I took the wrong way and maybe that’s why nobody recognised me afterwards. I’m not a judge: I don't know whether I took the right path and someone else the wrong one. But at the time I never wasted my time thinking about whether I was doing the right thing. I did it at the start of my career and I wasted energy but I eventually learned how I could get through with my training and hard work and still get satisfaction."
Carlos Sastre's sentences match the location for our meeting on the first day of June 2012 - the 33rd and top floor of the Broadgate Tower, 165 metres above the teeming pavements of the City of London.
Up here, far from the hustle and bustle, among the clouds and Sastre's words, meaning is like the air: all around yet impossible to grasp. As Gérard Vroomen, Sastre's old boss at Cervélo, says, "Carlos has this way of talking... He can sound like a philosopher. You think you know what he means but you're never 100 per cent sure."
Some things have changed in the half-year since Sastre tip-toed out of professional cycling but not this. Sastre sounds the same. And looks it - down to the sad eyes and the same "almost grey, withered skin" that struck Bjarne Riis on their first meeting in 2001, and which led Riis to doubt why Laurent Jalabert had recommended the Spaniard.
Sastre has gained a few kilos but the black suit he wears for the presentation of the Trois Étapes cyclo-sportif that he is here promoting still drowns him. "I'm still riding my bike a bit - not as much as I'd like, but a little bit," he says. He suspects that his future lies in cycling but is not sure yet what form it may take.
"I'm helping out at my father's club in Avila, the club where I started but I don't have any responsibility. I would love to do something for cycling but I need some time to miss cycling first before I figure out what I can do."
The question we're more concerned with today is whether cycling misses Sastre as much as it should. Lack of recognition was a theme running through his career and appears to have followed him into his retirement. This despite a sharp new perspective casting itself across cycling's landscape: in July 2008, Lance Armstrong watched Sastre win the Tour de France, his old domestique Christian Vande Velde finish fifth, and scoffed; he later called it "a joke" and one good reason to attempt a comeback.
In recent weeks and months, of course, the joke has been on Armstrong - not that anyone is laughing.
Given that the first winner after the Armstrong dynasty was Floyd Landis and the one after him Alberto Contador, Sastre's still underappreciated 2008 Tour win thus carries extra kudos. To find a Tour champion with no doping blemishes before him we have to go back to... Armstrong's strident critic Greg LeMond.
All of this, though, appears to mean little to Sastre: "The fact that I finished my career without being involved in a doping scandal didn't make me happy or proud," he says. "I feel happy because I had a successful career, I have a great family and I'm the same person as I was before. Even after nearly 20 years as a pro, I still love cycling..."
Turning professional with ONCE
As usual, then, the message is perhaps less in what Sastre does say than what he doesn't. He went pro with ONCE in 1997 with no expectations and, he says, no awareness of the doping plague about to brim over at the following year's Tour de France.
All he knew was that, if he were ever to ride the Tour, which then seemed a fantastical goal, he wanted "at least 150,000 euros a season" to do it. Hearing this, his elder teammates at the time Luis Pérez, Rafael Diaz, Íñigo Cuesta laughed.
"But a few years later they came back to me and said I was right," Sastre smiles now. "You see I knew that, if we ever got to the Tour, it would mean that we had something, a talent, but also that we'd worked hard to get there..."
Nonetheless, he says, before he did finally make his Tour debut in ONCE colours in 2001, the Festina scandal had caused a seismic shock.
"I didn't know anything about doping," he assures us. "I had been a pro a few months, then the Festina affair happened and all those things afterwards. For me that was hard. It was hard because what I was doing was completely different from what I was hearing from the media. It wasn't nice. At that time, schools and universities used to invite me to talk to their students and one day, a child asked me what I thought when people called me a 'druggie'. I could not give him an answer but I gave him a question.
"I said, 'If you study hard to get results all term and you still only just about get by, then the teacher comes to you at the end of term and says you copied and are suspended, how do you feel?' He looked at me and didn't know what to say. Because it's the same - if you were working hard yet someone was saying these things without knowing anything about you, you'd be frustrated. And I was."
Of course, with what we know now, it's easy to suspect Sastre of being disingenuous. He was, after all, riding for the ONCE team managed by Manolo Saiz. The same Manolo Saiz who withdrew his riders en masse from the 1998 Tour with the parting message: "I have stuck my finger up the Tour de France's arse." The same Manolo Saiz, who, perhaps more to the point, in 2006 would be arrested along with Eufemiano Fuentes in what later became known as Operación Puerto.
We ask Sastre. Did Saiz ever try to tempt him? "Manolo never offered me anything. I was with him for five years and he never [did]," he says firmly.
He goes on to explain, "Manolo showed me the value of hard work and sacrifice and how to earn the respect of my team-mates. He showed me a lot of things that helped me later when I moved to CSC and Cervélo.
"He was a hard coach, a disciplinarian, very hands-on but he was also a very smart person. He made a lot of mistakes, and he's paying for them now, but I think Manolo Saiz was a revolutionary for cycling. He was controlling everything in the team at the time. No one had a team bus back then, except ONCE, and we had four of them. We had more than 1,000 bikes for the team! There wasn't another team anything like ours."
The Sastre way
Sastre's former teammate at Cervélo, Daniel Lloyd, tells a story about the Spaniard which is a neat metaphor for how his career progressed after ONCE.
It was the spring of 2009, Sastre was the reigning Tour de France champion and Lloyd a ProTour rookie who had fought and forced his way into the big leagues at the comparatively crinkly (for a cyclist) age of 28. Having spent March and April learning on the job at the Classics, Lloyd had been dispatched straight to the Giro d'Italia to serve Sastre as his guard-dog. The first, crucial summit finish came on just the fourth day of the race, on stage 4 from Padova to San Martino di Castrozza.
Around 80 kilometres from the finish, the peloton started to crackle with nervous energy. The speed increased. Lloyd moved out of Sastre's slipstream and onto his shoulder.
The Englishman recalls, "I'd already worked out that he was happiest towards the back, unlike a lot of leaders, but I asked him whether it wasn't about time we thought about moving up because, you know, it was starting to kick off. He said no and that he'd call me if he needed me. A few more kilometres went by. It kept getting quicker. I moved up to ask him again.
"'Er, Carlos, shouldn't we, er...' Same response from Carlos. And this kept happening all the way until the first big climb. There, gaps started opening up and we must have been 30 positions behind where the shout went up for the gruppetto but he just weaved his way through and ended up finishing in the first group. And that was how he generally rode..."
In a wider sense, having left Saiz and ONCE for Riis and CSC at the end of 2001, Sastre's mazy slalom through the human debris of a disintegrating generation began. Right from the off, though, his relationship with the Dane was a turbulent one.
In his autobiography, Riis calls Sastre "particularly headstrong" and says that their conversations were "a kind of battle" usually revolving around training and two fundamentally different philosophies.
"In my opinion, his excuses were all down to him not wanting any kind of structure or system to his training. I also thought that he was perhaps worried about not living up to expectations - both his own and everyone else's," Riis wrote.
Ironically, Sastre broadly agrees on the source of their disagreements. Just a few underwhelming races into his time at CSC, he and Riis were clashing.
"I said many times, 'Bjarne, I am not a robot.' I didn't complain for the sake of complaining," he remembers, his voice rising slightly.
"I tried to listen as much as possible and the first year when I joined the team I was doing all his training. And I went backwards. They were complaining about me because I wasn't going well. I can remember Johnny Weltz, one of the directeurs sportifs, calling me to say that Bjarne was complaining about me, saying I wasn't riding well because I'd signed a two-year contract and wanted to spend the first year playing with my balls, then ride the second year well to get a nice contract.
"I said 'okay, if you think that, we can break the contract right now and I won't follow any of Bjarne's scientific methods any more'. He said 'No, no, we don't want to do that, but we want you to know that we're not completely satisfied.' I said from then on I'd do my own thing in training. I did and within a few weeks was getting good results."
But, Sastre says, even when he started clocking up the major tour stage wins and podium finishes, Riis's faith in him was never iron-clad. He believes now that he was ready to win the 2006 Tour when Operación Puerto deprived CSC of his friend Ivan Basso and led to his own promotion but that "the team didn't fully believe in me".
Consequently Sastre could only manage third. Two years later, CSC arrived in France with three potential winners - Sastre and the two Schleck brothers. As usual, he isn't explicit but both Sastre's nebulous utterances and what Riis says in his book about the running conflict between Sastre and the Schlecks suggests that it was a bumpy ride towards Paris.
"Riis and I were like a married couple," Sastre smiles knowingly, impishly. "We had a completely different point of view. But Bjarne said to me many times, off the bike, 'I love you, Carlos.' My reply to that was 'Why are you so hard with me?'
"I was the person who could make the impossible happen for him. When everything was impossible, Carlos Sastre was there for him; and when he had someone who could make his dreams come true, Carlos Sastre was in the second line. That was hard for me. I was always his second choice.
"But I can still say many good things about Bjarne Riis because he taught me how to win, how to train hard and get into really good physical condition, and he also taught me how to treat other riders - how to be tough with them and how to be kind with them. So he taught me a lot of good things...
"I'm the only rider who's ever won the Tour with Bjarne Riis; I think that makes him happy and it also made me happy..."
Carlos Sastre wins the 2008 Tour de France.
The smile broadens. That line: "I'm the only rider who's ever won the Tour with Bjarne..." For all Sastre's modesty, and for all that he'll say in a second that he couldn't have done it without a brilliant CSC team, we detect a pinch of schadenfreude.
As though we can deny Sastre the acclaim that he and his 2008 Tour win deserved but not the opportunity to set the record straight.
"Fränk Schleck was in the top-10 in that Tour de France because I took really important decisions," he says in conclusion. "I tried to give him all that I could. Maybe I'm not the smartest person in the world but during that Tour I taught Bjarne Riis, I taught the Schlecks and I taught many people in that team.
"I knew that because after that Tour I noticed them doing a lot of things that I taught them. I'm talking about decisions in the race, tactics, and many things that helped us to be the best team in the Tour de France."
Arrival at Cervélo TestTeam
After more squabbles with Riis at the 2008 Vuelta, Sastre swapped one tall, imposing, bald-headed manager for another, signing to Gérard Vroomen's newborn Cervélo TestTeam. His two seasons there would be a moderately successful diminuendo whose highest note was third place in his first major tour with the team, the 2009 Giro, and which ended meekly in 2010. Sastre then rode one, final season with Geox. In keeping with his career, he went out quietly - almost in silence.
Vroomen says now that cycling "could do with a few more people like Sastre". They, too, had their moments - Sastre could be awkward - but Vroomen agrees that he was never fully appreciated. He points to Sastre's 15 top-10 finishes in grand tours, including six podiums.
It's a statistic which, in Vroomen's view, makes Sastre "probably the best GC rider of his generation". A generation, as we've said, in which his untarnished record in all matters doping sparkles.
Sastre is shadowed by Armstrong on stage 17 at the 2009 Giro d'Italia.
"You know, he had his principles and he couldn't control what other people were doing, just carry on working hard. Then, hey presto, a bunch of guys test positive for CERA and he wins the Tour. He thinks it will all change for him after that but he comes back in 2009 and realises that actually it hasn't. I think that was quite hard for him," Vroomen concedes.
He continues, "I wouldn't put my signature to anyone being clean - how would I know? - but certainly that's what I heard from the peloton about Carlos, what his colleagues certainly seemed to say. And usually the peloton is pretty sure of what's going on. It sounds plausible, in line with his character as I've seen it, and his difficulties with certain people. I mean, he had a couple of team managers with questionable pasts and he seemed to frustrate them, which I see as a good thing..."
"I've had my problems with him as well but I see him as a good person, a unique individual in the peloton," Vroomen says finally. "I mean, he does a ton of work for charity that you never hear about, which shows that he's not interested in being in the spotlight. He's a special character."
That too, is our impression, sitting opposite him in a vast boardroom high up in the London skyline. Before leaving us, he smiles again at his wife Peidi, the sister of the late José María Jiménez, and assures us that all the endorsement he needs and ever needed for his career comes from her, from his family. "I don't expect anything. I was happy with all the things that I did and I'm happy with my career," he says, shaking our hand and grinning.
As for cycling, well, now more so than ever in light of recent events, Joni Mitchell was right - you really don't know what you've got till it's gone...
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