While it might seem somewhat arbitrary for the organisers of the Tour d’Azerbaidjan to invite Carlos Sastre as an ambassador, the Spaniard does have a link with the country and indeed with the Tour d’Azerbaidjan.
In the race’s first edition, when it was an U23 race back in 2012, the Azerbaijan Cycling Federation contacted Carlos to ask if he knew a Spanish amateur team that could come to the race. He did: the Smilekers-FPDVS town based in his home town.
“So [the team] came here and we won a stage and finished fourth in the overall so it was a very good impression for us. The riders were very happy to be here.”
Now, a couple years on, Sastre has been following the first few stages of the race, granting interviews, appearing at press conferences and giving presentations. And so far he’s been impressed by the race.
“From what I can see the organisation has improved a lot since three years and this race has become very important to Azerbaidjan. I think the organisation are doing a very good job of it here.”
The Tour de France win
While Sastre enjoyed great success over a long career, it’s undoubtedly his Tour de France win in 2008 that shines brightest.
At the time he was riding for Team CSC, a squad that also featured Frank and Andy Schleck. The older of the two, Frank, had taken the yellow jersey on stage 15 of the Tour (a stage that was won by Simon Gerrans) but on stage 17 Sastre made his move.
Sastre attacked twice on Alpe d’Huez, the first time dragging Dennis Menchov with him, the second time breaking clear of the Russian. He went on to win the stage by more than two minutes and the final general classification by 58 seconds over Cadel Evans.
A career snapshot
For many readers there’s every chance you haven’t heard of Carlos Sastre since that race. He left CSC at the end of that season – reportedly due to ongoing tensions with team owner Bjarne Riis – and went on to ride two seasons with the Cervelo Test Team.
In 2009 he won two stages of the Giro d’Italia on his way to fourth place overall. He enjoyed more modest success the following year – as modest as eighth overall at both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana can be anyway – before heading to Geox-TMC Transformers for the 2011 season.
And then he retired, quietly and with far less fanfare that a rider of his calibre and consistency probably deserved. The numbers speak for themselves: in 14 seasons as a pro, Sastre managed an impressive 15 top-10 results at the three Grand Tours, including five podium finishes.
Cheated by dopers?
According to some, Carlos Sastre is one of the few clean Grand Tour winners in the past decade or so. Indeed he has never tested positive for performance-enhancing substances or been implicated in any doping investigation. This in itself is remarkable when you consider Sastre rode at one of the most controversial periods in the sport’s history.
So does he feel cheated by those who doped and achieved better results than him in the process?
“I’m not a person that thinks in the past. I’m a person that thinks in the present and of course a little bit in the future. I am very happy with my career when I was a pro rider, when I got 15 or 16 top-10 results and I don’t know how many podiums.
“I thought sometimes I could win another important race without any troubles because I have around three or four podiums and then I was back to the podium after some scandals. In the end, all the things you don’t live in this moment, nothing changes in your life afterwards. [ed. I took this to mean “if you focus too much on the past, you’ll never have the chance to grow.”]
“That’s the reason why I’m happy with myself, with my career, with all that I did. I’m a rider that helped other riders to win races and I supported them as much as I could. So when I have the chance to win I did it for myself. I know that there’s not many people in the world that are able to do that.”
In 2008, a then-retired Lance Armstrong watched Sastre win the Tour de France and later told his biography writer that “The (2008) Tour was a bit of a joke this year. I’ve got nothing against Sastre or Christian Vande Velde. Christian’s a nice guy, but finishing fifth in the Tour de France? Come on.”
Armstrong later apologised for the comments but does Sastre get any satisfaction from watching Armstrong long and protracted fall from grace?
“I don’t follow those kinds of scandals. I like to watch the races on the television, how the teams are improving themselves and their performance”, Sastre said. “I like to watch cycling but I don’t follow too much the scandals. [But] Armstrong? It’s a spectacle everywhere.”
After 14 years of training and racing hard around the world, Carlos Sastre needed a break from cycling. Nowadays he rides only for fun but he obviously hasn’t walked away from the sport completely. In addition to his ambassadorial role at the Tour d’Azerbaijan (and a similar role at a race in the Czech Republic a few years ago) Sastre is currently working to try and develop young cyclists back in Spain.
“Right now I’m helping the foundation of my father. We have a school of cycling over [in Spain] with different teams and also working on a project that’s quite similar to the project they have here in Azerbaijan. We are developing cycling at schools and we are teaching 1,500 children how to ride a bike, how to use the bike correctly and to respect each other.
“It makes me happy and we can see that the children are improving themselves and they are happy with the activity. Also the schools are very happy because before they didn’t have anything like that or the economic or financial part to get like 30 bikes in the school and teach [the kids] properly.”
And he’s making sure that he spends time away from cycling as well.
“[These days I’m] enjoying my family, enjoying my time a little bit and resting as much as I can because I was busy for a long time. Now it’s time to give something back to the family.”
For a man that excelled in three-week races, it’s not surprising that he has a opinion about how the first Grand Tour of this year, the Giro d’Italia, will unfold. CyclingTips asked whether he thinks Cadel Evans can achieve his goal of a second Grand Tour win, and Sastre had no hesitation in answering.
“No. I would like him to because he’s a great rider but I can’t see it happening. He’s very strong and he’s always there, you know, but when it’s very very steep it’s too difficult for him. I would like to see him or Ivan Basso win it but I think Nairo Quintana has a great opportunity [particularly] in the third week.”
So how would Carlos Sastre like to be remembered as the years roll on? You get the sense from talking to him that his successes on the bike are just one part of the puzzle.
“It’s more important for me to get prestige in life. Everyday being the same person, doing the same things and following one straight line. For me that’s the most important thing. I cannot live with the stress of what people are thinking of me so I try to be myself and be happy with that.”