As his countryman Alberto Contador returned to Spain the victor of this year's Tour de France, 2008 champion Carlos Sastre was analysing what went wrong. The Cervelo TestTeam rider finished 17th overall in Paris, over 26 minutes behind Contador, with plenty of questions to answer after a campaign that never reached the dizzying heights of the previous season's edition.
A slightly acrimonious split from previous squad CSC-Saxo Bank, a team he had ridden for since 2002, was the opening for an exciting project with bike manufacturer Cervelo when it entered the pro ranks as a 'factory team' rather than a technical supplier.
Success in the Giro d'Italia - two emphatic stage wins and a fourth place overall - bode well for the Tour de France, where Sastre entered as defending champion. He explains however, that although his Italian campaign probably hurt his chances in la Grande Boucle, it's "no excuse" for his performance.
"That's not an excuse; I just want to be realistic. Although I planned the season that way because I thought it was what was best for me, I've now realised how much I've had to cope with in the last year and I can see that it's just been too much," says Sastre.
"I can't say that I feel happy at the moment, but I do feel more at ease now, much more than I did during the Tour, because when I arrived in Monaco I immediately felt that something was wrong and that something wasn't working," he adds. "But at the time I was so focused on the race that I wasn't able to take stock of what was happening to me and the reason why I was feeling so empty inside.
"Over time I've realised that a great many things have been making me feel that way and when the moment of truth arrived, when I wanted to try and get it all out of my system, there was nothing left in me."
Heavy schedule takes its toll
The 2008 Tour champion explains that a busy schedule contributed heavily to this 'drained' feeling. While modern Tour winners are criticised for their minimal racing calendar, Sastre took third overall at last year's Vuelta and helped Sammy Sanchez secure a gold medal in the Beijing Olympic road race. This type of extended effort quickly adds up.
"Having sat back and analysed what happened to me in this Tour, I've realised a number of things," says Sastre. "Perhaps the first and for me the most important is that I've come to the conclusion that one can't perform at a very high standard for so long. In my case, I haven't stopped since I won the Tour de France.
"I've competed in four Grand Tours in less than a year: Tour, Vuelta, Giro and Tour, plus the Olympic Games, as well as an incredible number of events and acts, and that hasn't left me any time to rest," he says. "I think that's the reason for my tiredness and for the fact that at the moment I feel as if my body has nothing left to give. The only thing I can think of right now is resting."
Cervelo's captain admits that he rode the Giro in the belief it would help his Tour effort, although in hindsight it may have proved a hindrance to his form. "I think that on top of the tiredness I was suffering from, that just tipped the balance. Of course the Giro d'Italia has taken its toll on me, but there were also a whole lot of circumstances that I've not managed to recover from, which has prevented me from coming to this Tour in the conditions I would have liked or that would have been necessary if I were to have had a chance of winning it," he says.
"I did the Giro in that way because I thought it was the right way to do it, because for me it was an important experience in a completely new team and because I wanted to come to the Tour prepared in terms of knowing what I would need for this race.
"All these situations of stress, tiredness, competition, training and events were bound to come to a head. The Tour is a race with a great deal of media pressure, all eyes are on a number of riders, including me, even though I criticised the media at the time, and because of all that one day I just snapped, opened my eyes and thought: what's going on here?
"At first you're not able to analyse events; you see that things have happened that you didn't think of at first and then you gradually start to think them over and see the pros and cons. That's what I've been doing and I think it's what's made me feel easier. I don't feel happy because I had completely different expectations, but I feel at peace with myself, which for me is much more important than anything else.
Talking team and the road ahead
Cervelo TestTeam owner Gerard Vroomen has stated that winning the Tour title was not a priority for the team at the beginning of the year and the squad tasted success in France with Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler. But Sastre's performance wasn't close to expectations, so how did the new team on the block deal with this? Sastre is candid on the subject.
"A leader is a person who gives a team stability," he explains. "At first it was not easy because it was the first time that the nine of us who went out in this Tour de France had ridden together. The whole team needed to be brought together. By the time that was done, I'd missed my chance in the Tour and as my morale was low, the team also got a bit lost. People always need someone to lead the way and when that doesn't happen, things go wrong.
"Despite everything I've always felt very well cared for and respected by my teammates, both the assistants and the other riders, as well as by my friends," continues Sastre. "In that regard I haven't lacked anything. The trouble is that it takes time to get back on track; things don't just change from one minute to the next. You have to analyse things and think them over. When you're feeling low you know you have to get over it, and that's all there is to it."
While other riders for whom the Tour was not a complete success are already looking towards goals later in the season, Sastre is more content to take it one step at a time, focusing instead on recuperation and avoiding the pitfalls that plagued him as a result of a non-stop regime following his Tour triumph last year.
"All I can think of at the moment is resting and disappearing off the face of the earth for a while," says Sastre. "What I need right now is rest, rest and more rest. Then when I've recovered from all this, both physically and emotionally, I'll see things differently."
As for the world championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland, where he could perform well, Sastre says: "There are still almost two months to go until the world championships. I'm not ruling it out, but it's not something I'm thinking about at the moment."
The experienced and affable Spaniard discovered more about himself as a result of his win in the 2008 Tour, although after a less-than-successful campaign this year he believes he continued to learn, albeit different lessons. "Looking back on it now in retrospect and with more composure, I feel more at ease," he says philosophically.
"For me this Tour has been a new experience, from which I have once again learnt something," says Sastre. "It's been a tough experience, but at the same time I think it's been gratifying. Getting left behind and suffering and wanting to get ahead but not being able to helps you to learn a lot of things and analyse little details that could be important in the future."
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