Carlos Sastre: An unsung hero

Sastre in yellow (Image courtesy of VanDammeMaarten.be on Flickr)

There was a brilliant tweet from @irishpeloton the other day regarding the recently retired 2008 Tour de France winner, Carlos Sastre:

7 winners of the Tour de France 1996-2010. Two doped. One is dead. One is Lance. Two hear from CAS this week … all hail Carlos Sastre!

Sastre is without doubt one of the most honest and trustworthy riders to have ever won the yellow jersey, whilst having a friendly personality which made him universally liked in the world of cycling – and not many riders can lay claim to that! Sastre slowly faded towards his retirement, and finally slipped quietly from view at the end of last season without much fuss; a mark of the unassuming Madrilenian.

After turning professional with ONCE in 1997, Sastre moved on to Bjarne Riis’ CSC, where he had most of his success, including winning the coveted maillot jaune. It was clear early in his career that he was a very capable climber, finishing eighth in his very first Vuelta a Espana, and was runner-up in 2005, as well as achieving routine top tens in the Tour de France.

But it seemed like it would be a career where he would always be second best. He had an ungainly style on the bike, which saw his 5′ 8″ figure hunched over the handlebars, rocking from side to side as he ascended the mountainside. There were flashes of brilliance, such as winning the tough stage 13 of the 2003 Tour de France after a long breakaway, ahead of the likes of Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong.

In 2006 after the Operacion Puerto scandal reared its ugly head, it was Sastre who was tasked with taking over as Tour team leader for the first time, with Ivan Basso being one of the riders implicated and thrown out. He finished second on stage 17 (albeit to testosterone-fuelled Floyd Landis), and only after a poor (but expected) final time trial fell to fourth place.

But, two years later, his time had finally come. On stage 17 of the Tour, with a summit finish at the top of Alpe d’Huez, Sastre had realised he needed a bigger gap to hold off Cadel Evans in the time trial. So he attacked at the foot of the climb and, in one of the most memorable rides in Tour de France history, took the stage by over two minutes from the GC contenders.

It was enough for Sastre to seal the Tour de France, his one and only Grand Tour victory. He moved on to the Cervelo TestTeam after leaving CSC at the end of 2008, with a final highlight being two stage wins and third overall at the 2009 Giro d’Italia. An incredible career spanning 13 years and featuring 15 Grand Tour top tens came to an end at the end of 2011 after a year riding at Geox-TMC.

Sastre was an exciting rider: humble, trustworthy and extraordinarily loyal. He could occasionally be seen at the back of the peloton collecting bidons for his teammates, even whilst nominal team leader. In an emotional farewell after his teammate Juan Jose Cobo won the Vuelta, Sastre said:

It’s time to end this cycle. Being alongside the winner of the Vuelta and winning team was the best conclusion to my career.

Gracias, Carlos!

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