There’ll have been various points throughout Carlos Sastre’s career where he’d have been told not to look back; his solo stage victory ahead of a raging Jan Ullrich on Ax 3 Domaines comes to mind, as does his career defining attack on Alpe d’Huez en route to landing the Tour de France. However, now retired and rarely troubled by the cycling media, Sastre may find himself frequently looking back. When he does, he’ll be able to reflect on a wonderful pro cycling career.
Not many of my heroes from the dreaded 1998-2008 span (the foundational years from which my pro cycling obsession grew) are mentionable these days. There are very few conversations where my ‘Ivan Basso was a cracking rider’ isn’t immediately squashed by somebody saying ‘shame about Operation Puerto though’. I guess I find it hard to hate my old favourites when I know they were dopers amongst dopers. The era produced so many villains that for a short time the Tour de France honours list resembled a winning bingo ticket. When news of the extent of doping in the Rabobank team broke a handful of years ago my list of clean childhood heroes dropped to a grand total of one: Carlos Sastre.
I’ve so far refrained from diving head first into a 2000 word post about doping because I don’t think I possess the appropriate anger. The riders who nearly ruined our sport are the same ones I idolised when buying my first bike. Sastre, however, is somebody who has more than enough reason to hold his cheating peers in contempt; he placed in grand tour top tens on fifteen occasions finishing behind the likes of Alexander Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin, Denis Menchov, Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis. His record of fifteen top ten finishes is only bettered by two riders throughout history. There is plenty more to gasp at on his Palmares such as his streak of prodigious Tour/Vuelta doubles from 2006-2008 and his Giro/Tour/Vuelta treble in 2010 at the age of 35.
Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana have recently emerged as fans of the Tour/Vuelta double but back in 2006 riding both races competitively was uncommon. Sastre bucked the trend and placed third, fourth and first in three consecutive Tours and followed each with a top five finish in Spain (including runner-up to Menchov in 2007). He was a remarkable GC rider and one-of-a-kind within his generation.
The common perception of Sastre – particularly during his tussles with Cadel Evans – is of a pure climber rather than rounded GC contender. In other words, he was seen as just another gifted Spaniard with an aversion to time trialling. A closer inspection of his career tells a completely different story; Sastre could hold his own on time trials and achieved some fine results on even the flattest and longest pursuits. In the 2004 Vuelta Espana – arguably Sastre’s first tilt at a GC – he placed eighth on a flat 40km course in Valencia to move up several places in the GC. In the race’s final time trial in Madrid he was just eight seconds away from taking the stage win.
He was at it again in the Vuelta the following year, bettering the rides of Menchov, Roberto Heras and Tom Danielson across the race’s two ‘flat’ time trials. He impressed once more in 2006, shipping just 46 seconds to stage winner David Millar on a 33km course. In Spain, amongst his regular Vuelta rivals, Sastre was a rider who would actually use time trials to his advantage.
Nevertheless, in the final week of the 2008 Tour de France – the pinnacle of Sastre’s career – he was painted as a late-blooming, underdog climber against Australia’s accomplished star Cadel Evans.
At the end of Stage 14, Evans led Sastre’s teammate Frank Schleck by one single second. The presence of the elder Schleck brother may have been the single most important factor in Sastre’s Tour de France victory. The following day Schleck wrestled the yellow jersey onto his shoulders giving himself, and Team CSC, a psychological advantage. Nevertheless, Evans knew the 55km time trial to Saint-Armand-Montrond gave him plenty of time to haul back the Luxembourger.
Perhaps Evans spent too much time focussed on Schleck. Perhaps, like the rest of the cycling world, not enough attention was given to the Spaniard back in fourth place. Perhaps Bjarne Riis and the rest of Team CSC anticipated this when formulating a plan for the arrival of Alpe d’Huez on Stage 17. Sastre attacked at the bottom of the climb and ascended the Alp a whole two minutes faster than his rivals. Evans struggled and was left needing over 90 seconds on the time trial. At the time I remember being sucked into a thrilling conclusion where Sastre – powered by the Maillot Jaune – clung on to his advantage to land a maiden Tour victory. In hindsight, he was never going to throw it away. He finished eleventh.
I often wonder how Schleck felt about the 2008 race. In business terms it was the correct decision to set Sastre free to fly. He was the strongest climber and didn’t possess the same Achilles heel as Schleck (who had a nightmare in Saint-Armand-Montrond, losing over three minutes to Evans).
Bjarne Riis, amongst others, has revealed Sastre was a headstrong character that would often challenge instruction and favour his own tried and tested ideas. By all accounts the Spaniard possessed a stubborn streak which would have no doubt helped him surface in a team full of exciting GC talent. Without the attacks, stage victories and eventual Tour win, Sastre could have gone down as an underachiever. He was determined not to let this happen and ghosted his way to the very top of the sport.
But how can we be sure a rider who was managed for long stretches by Manolo Saiz (heavily implicated to Puerto) and Bjarne Riis (confessed doper) is the purest Tour de France winner of his generation? These nagging doubts are the final stains left by the sophisticated doping programmes of the late 90s. We’ve grown cynical of everything we see. However, the many members of Team CSC who turned to doping had likely chosen to of their own volition. By 2008 doping was no longer the norm. Several stories indicate Sastre left Team CSC due to lingering suggestions of new doping strategies by connected doctors. He didn’t want to be linked to any fresh scandals and – much like at the foot of Alpe d’Huez – he distanced himself.
Calling every rider from that era a doper has proved to have a depressingly high success rate. It’s impossible to say for sure that Sastre is any different – but what’s wrong with holding on to a shred of hope?
He wound up giving two years to Gérard Vroomen’s Cervélo squad. He was brilliant at the 2009 Giro d’Italia claiming two stage wins that nobody ever talks about. The first was a cracking stage that finished on Monte Petrano. Menchov, Basso and Danilo Di Luca took turns attacking before Sastre broke the elastic and made a move that stuck. His second victory, on the mighty Mount Vesuvius, was his last professional win. He ended up finishing fourth behind Menchov and two riders whose names have since been scratched from the records.
Sadly his efforts at the Giro made defending the Tour de France against Alberto Contador a near-impossible task. That season marked the start of a new era and Sastre retired two years later leaving behind a career of remarkably consistent performances and a few moments of real brilliance.