By Andrew Hood
Spanish veteran Iñigo Cuesta will be among the oldest riders in the peloton in 2009.
Cuesta – who turns 40 in June – is still going strong as the right-hand man of Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre. When Sastre committed to Cervélo, he made sure there was a place for the hard-working Cuesta on the start-up team.
The prolific climber won such races as the Vuelta al País Vasco and a stage in the Dauphiné Libéré early in his career before evolving into a super domestique, riding at such teams as Euskaltel, ONCE, Cofidis and Team CSC.
The 2009 campaign will be his 18th as a professional and Cervélo will be his sixth team in a career that bridges the generation of Miguel Indurain to today’s newest Spanish sensations.
Earlier this month VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Cuesta at Cervélo’s team camp in Portugal to talk about Sastre, the secrets of longevity and how the peloton’s changed in nearly two decades of racing.
VeloNews: You turned pro in 1994 with Euskaltel and you’re now entering your 16th season, what’s the secret?
Iñigo Cuesta: It’s very simple – I still enjoy racing the bike. I enter this season with the same motivation as always, perhaps even more so because it’s a new team and a new challenge. I’m still excited to go on training rides and I still enjoy all that’s around being a professional. Mentally, I am very good. I don’t mind to go suffer on the bike.
VN: Is the psychological motivation almost more important than how the body holds up?
IC: I still enjoy mounting the bike and that’s the most important part of racing. Once you lose it in the head and it only becomes drudgery, then your days are counted. It’s hard to make the necessary sacrifice once you stop enjoying training and it’s only a job. Physically, I am still very good, which is fundamental.
VN: How did you come to Cervélo?
IC: Cervélo was talking about the new project. It’s something different in cycling. The team is bringing some new ideas to the sport and I found it interesting. Carlos (Sastre) was coming I wanted to continue my collaboration with him, someone I admire a lot both on and off the bike.
VN: Your experience will be a big plus to the team, what’s your role within the group?
IC: I will be there to help Carlos in the Tour and (José Angel) Marchante in the Vuelta. I will be there to help them win. That’s what I do now. It’s not often I have a chance to win, but that’s OK, I know what my role is and I am comfortable with that. Mine is to sacrifice so that the others can win, to help them with what they need.
VN: Will you race both the Giro and Tour with Sastre?
IC: My season starts with California with Carlos and then I’ll race Paris-Nice and País Vasco. I won’t race the Giro with Carlos. Instead, I will prepare for the Tour and then race the Vuelta with Marchante. He has a lot of quality and he has a good future ahead of him. I will help him take aim for the podium.
VN: What are the biggest changes in the peloton you’ve seen since turning pro in 1994?
IC: It’s true a lot has changed. At first, you don’t notice the changes until you reflect and look back. I’ve had to learn to adapt to a new style of racing. First and foremost is the introduction of the headset. Before, you had to have a vision of the race and understand what was happening and be ready to react. Now the racing is much more controlled by the teams and the sport directors.
VN: Do you prefer the older, more wide-open style of racing or is today’s racing style with bigger teams just as interesting?
IC: We first started to see the bigger teams taking control of the racing with ONCE. They rode as a big block and other teams learned from that. You have to learn to adapt. Cycling is beautiful, both in its older form and in today’s modern cycling. Last year’s Tour was not so bad, eh? The race was interesting and CSC knew how to control it just in the right way. The day on Alpe d’Huez when Carlos attacked, this was like cycling from the old days.
VN: You weren’t with Sastre at the Tour, what happened?
IC: I was to go with him to the Tour, but at the last minute, Bjarne (Riis) told me I wasn’t going to the Tour and instead to prepare for the Vuelta. I am a professional and I accepted his decision.
VN: You’re very close with Sastre, what’s he like away from the races?
IC: He’s very humble, very thankful of everything that is done for him. He’s earned his place. He’s a big talent and works very hard. What he did last year in the Tour was an accumulation of years of sacrifice and hard work. You see now that he’s the winner of the Tour de France, but it hasn’t changed his character. And now he’s giving so much to his fans and to people who need his help. He’s still the same Carlos and I admire him even more for it.
VN: Sastre was always close in the Tour, but never quite up to winning, what changed in 2008 for him?
IC: To me the big change came during the 2007 Vuelta. He always lacked a little point, but during that Vuelta, he became to believe that he could win. That was decisive, to have that belief that it was possible. A champion needs that cold head to be able to win. During the 2007 Vuelta, we saw the first example of a stronger Carlos that revealed itself on Alpe d’Huez.
VN: You weren’t at the Tour, did you follow it on television?
IC: Every day and I enjoyed it immensely, even if I wasn’t there. I enjoyed last year’s Tour more than any of my career.
VN: What characterizes Sastre’s Tour victory for you?
IC: It reminds me of the old victories of Pedro Delgado in the 1980s that inspired of all us racing today — attack, attack and attack some more. Only Carlos can attack like that on a mountain like Alpe d’Huez from so far from the finish line. Menchov tried to follow, but Menchov isn’t a climber. That what makes a climber different from a complete rider, these changes of speed on the steepest climbs.
VN: Many think Sastre’s Tour win is a one-off, do you believe he can win again with Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong back in the race?
IC: There will be a lot of favorites. It’s clear that we have to respect him as the winner, because we know he can do it again. A lot of riders still haven’t won one Tour and Carlos has proven he can win. At Cervélo, we will only think about our work and not worry about others too much.
VN: How big of a risk is it for Sastre to leave an established team like CSC and move to a new team like Cervélo?
IC: He has confidence in all of us, in the team. There are some quality riders here. I think we will find extra motivation because there will be people who doubt us.
VN: You’ve signed a two-year contract with Cervélo, will that be the end for you?
IC: Never say never! I like to race — it makes you feel young. You cannot find that anywhere else, this joy, this freedom, this desire to fight on the bike. You can never predict the future. The day you lose that motivation is the day to retire. That day hasn’t arrived yet for me.