Carlos Sastre stepped out of the Cervélo TestTeam bus Friday morning in Montargis to answer a question that’s dominating the sports radar right now: Who is going to win the World Cup final between Spain and Holland.
“Spain, of course,” Sastre said. “1-0 will be good enough for me.”
No one was there to ask Sastre who he thought was going to win the Tour de France. A lone Spanish journalist asked about the 2008 Tour champ’s expectations heading into the Alps. The rest of the Spanish press corps was over at the Astana bus, courting Alberto Contador.
“I’m not bad,” Sastre said. “I don’t know if I am good, but I do know that I am not bad. I am not feeling pain, so that’s the most important thing. I approach the race almost like you guys (journalists). I have to watch and wait to see what happens. I don’t have any special plans.”
Sastre barely made it to the start in Rotterdam. Two crashes at the Giro d’Italia left him with a herniated disk and kept him from any serious training before the Tour. He was the last rider selected to join Cervélo’s Tour squad.
Sastre avoided crashing in Monday’s wet stage off the Stockeu and was riding in great position across the cobbles in the Contador group when he tumbled after a rider crashed in front of him. Sastre broke both wheels and rode the oversized frame of teammate Brett Lancaster all the way to the line, eventually forfeiting more than two minutes.
Despite being a little banged up, Sastre says he is riding pain-free, something that wasn’t the case at the recent Giro where he rode to eighth.
“I am not feeling any pain at all in my back, that’s a big relief,” Sastre said. “I don’t know what to expect in the Alps. I will try to stay with the favorites. This Tour will be decided in the Pyrénées, so we must be patient and take it day by day.”
Sastre’s 2009 Tour was one of frustration and disappointment. The off-season saw comments from Lance Armstrong that Sastre’s win came against a soft field. He started in Monaco with the No. 1 race bib as defending champion, but things started badly when race officials told him at the last minute that they would not allow him to wear the yellow jersey during the opening time trial.
Sastre clearly wasn’t at his best and couldn’t match the attacks from his ex-teammates the Schleck brothers, Spanish rival Alberto Contador or Armstrong. When he finished a distant 16th – only the second time he ever finished outside the top-10 – Sastre was burned out.
“Last year, I ended the Tour totally empty,” Sastre says. “I didn’t want to know anything of cycling. I wanted to step away from the sport, to do things I couldn’t do for the past 15 years of my life. I went to see a Formula 1 race, I went to see NBA basketball, I went on vacation with my kids. I needed that.”
He didn’t touch the bike for nearly six months, and only began serious training in December to prepare for the 2010 season. Incredibly, he entered the Giro in May with just nine race days in his legs.
And even more surprising, Sastre says he’s feeling pretty good coming into the first climbing stages ahead this weekend in the Jura Mountains and the Alps.
“I want to be the Carlos Sastre that everyone knows,” he said. “I don’t know what can happen in this Tour. Perhaps we’re seeing a new, younger generation eclipsing the older generation. I still have something to say, but I come without any real firm objectives. I will take the race as it comes.”
Yet officials within the Cervélo team are quietly optimistic that Sastre could become a factor in this Tour.
“We haven’t thrown in the towel on GC yet. This is the best I’ve seen Carlos since he joined the team,” said sport director Jean-Paul van Poppel. “Last year, Carlos had a lot of pressure on his shoulders at the Tour and things didn’t go as he would have liked. He’s motivated to demonstrate that he is a strong rider in this race.”
Van Poppel said it’s key for Sastre to get through the Alps without forfeiting major time to the top favorites. If he can do that, Van Poppel says, Sastre could have a surprise up his sleeve.
“Carlos is always strong in the final week of a grand tour and the final week of this Tour is very hard,” he said. “We know that Carlos is not 100 percent right now, but we hope to see him near his best in the Pyrénées. We have to help him get through the Alps in the best possible position.”
No one was counting on Sastre in 2008, and he rode away with the Tour in one lethal attack on L’Alpe d’Huez. With the Tourmalet waiting to decide everything in this Tour, Sastre is quietly hoping he will let his legs do the talking one last time.