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By Andrew Hood
It’s not often that the defending Tour de France champion is rated as an underdog.
That unlikely position is just where Carlos Sastre finds himself on the eve of the 96th edition of the Tour de France.
With all eyes on Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, not to mention the Schleck brothers, Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov, Sastre seems to be the forgotten Tour winner.
Even the odds-makers seem to have written him off, putting his chances at a repeat at 18-to-1.
But that’s just fine for the 34-year-old Spanish climber, who will lead the new Cervélo team in its first Tour appearance when he starts Saturday as the final rider with the No. 1 start bib.
“I like to be in the shadows. I like to shine when it gets hot, when there’s an opportunity to do something, not before,” Sastre said Friday. “If others are the subject of talk, I don’t care. I feel confident in myself and in my team, that’s the most important thing.”
Sastre rode away with the maillot jaune last year in an audacious attack on Alpe d’Huez, snatching the yellow jersey away from then-CSC teammate Fränk Schleck and winning the Tour in a dramatic gesture after a long career of near-misses.
Sastre is a new man since winning the Tour, in large part thanks to his acrimonious split with longtime team manager Bjarne Riis.
Sastre left CSC (now Saxo Bank) and was the linchpin to the new Cervélo TestTeam squad, formed around the former bike sponsor of the Riis team.
Sastre says he’s found the support and confidence that he said he never received at his former team.
“This year, I’ve surrounded myself with people whom I can trust and they can give the tranquility I need to prepare for the Tour,” Sastre said. “The success of the team in the spring classics allowed me the tranquility I needed to prepare for the Tour. That’s one of the keys for Carlos Sastre. I am ready, the team is ready and now we have to go out and prove it on the road.”
Sastre’s new-found confidence hasn’t been lost on others. Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel said Sastre is even stronger than he was in 2008.
Sastre unveiled his new attitude at the Giro d’Italia in May, when he exploded in the mountains in the final half of the race, winning the two high-profile summit finishes at Monte Petrano and Monte Vesuvio. Only a bad day on the short stage to Blockhaus stopped short Sastre of what looked like a podium and he settled for fourth overall.
“Carlos was very strong at the Giro and he proved he was a real leader,” said Cervélo team manager Thomas. “The team wanted to do something, but Carlos said wait, wait. Then he did so many great things in the mountains. The team really trusts him now and they know he will be even stronger in the Tour.”
Sastre will likely follow his “hideout” strategy during this year’s Tour as well. Saturday’s time trial and the first of three summit finishes in stage 7 in the Pyrénées will be important, but Sastre said everything will be decided in the final week.
“The last week will be very hard. Two summit finishes, a time trial and two other mountain stages will prove difficult,” Sastre said. “Then there’s Mont Ventoux. Everyone will be very tired. It will be a very hard last week.”
Sound similar to last year’s scenario? Sastre is hoping the ending is just the same.