January 18, 2011

Towards the summit of Kilimanjaro

Carlos Sastre

(info about Carlos Sastre)

Insights of a Tour de France champion

Thomas Kieller

Carlos Sastre: Focused during a time trial.

At the beginning of his professional career, Carlos learned from his teammates the basics of the job while living on the side his ambitions of victory. The man from Ávila progressed by observing the great cyclists of his teams and by listening to their good advice. With the numerous races done and with all the experience behind him, he understood better his strength and his weaknesses. During training, he worked always hard to improve the different aspects of cycling. Many times, he excelled in the high mountain events. His diligent work was rewarded with some beautiful stage victories at the tours of Italy, France and Spain. Patient, methodical and a team player, he did strategic races where the contribution of his teammates was important. Than, his dream of victory in a great tour came through. At the 17th stage of the 2008 French tour, between Enbrun and Alpe d'Huez, he broke away from his opponents and he cycled through, in pain, the three major passes of the 210.5 km event to win the stage with a little more than two minutes in front of his closest adversary. Assured while wearing the yellow jersey, he was incisive in the last time trial where the stake was quite real. With his dazzling performance, he realized, against all expectations, the remarkable sporting achievement to win the 2008 Tour de France. The Spaniard is truly passionate of high mountain races where he can be fired up with enthusiasm and where he can push back his personal limits like he did at the Alpe d'Huez. He adores quite simply the mountainous landscapes and the sensation of freedom that he gets there on his bike. It's in this manner that Carlos has made his way, without holding back and by always going further.

The phone-interview took place on October 5, 2009 at 16:00 when Carlos and his son were in a school playground in Ávila, Spain.

2008 Tour de France edition

Thomas Kieller: At the 2008 Tour de France, everything went well for you. You finished first in this 3,558.5 km race with its 21 stages in 22 days which go from flat ground to the high mountains of the Alps. First, was it a dream come true?

Carlos Sastre: Yes, it was really important for me. It was essential for my work and at the same time it was very important for my team. When I won the race in 2008, I did not realize right away the whole impact of this victory, but with time, I understood its entire signification. When I saw all the papers, the magazines and the videos concerning this, it was nice for me.

Thomas: Obviously, it's quite a demanding race. From 180 starters, 145 cyclists finished the race in 2008… It’s not a piece of cake. Was it tough for you?

Carlos: Yes of course. Like you said, it's 22 days with the race team, the stress, the change of weather and a lot of things around us, it’s not easy. You must be ready physically and mentally. Before the tour, you must work hard. Concerning me, I had to work all my life for it. I did not win the Tour de France in 2007 or sooner because I was not ready for everything. In 2008, I won because I was ready for everything. I was strong physically and mentally too.

The pressure of the tour

Thomas: After this victory, a new challenge was facing you, the 2009 Tour de France. At the beginning of the tour, did you put on yourself a lot of pressure?

Carlos: Yes, I had pressure inside because I wanted to win again. Like you know, it is not a happy trip. Ha ha ha! At the start, I thought I was ready. However, the conclusion of the race told me otherwise. I was really tired before the race started because of what I did last year. It was the reason I could not do as well, even if I wanted really hard.

Thomas: There were also some factors that pushed you to react strongly in 2009 such as the way you think the media treated this event and the way the organization of the tour managed some aspects of the race. I'm talking about the Armstrong/Contador situation and who should wear the yellow jersey in the initial stage. The modern cyclist is not only racing against other cyclists, but is he also fighting against outside factors?

Carlos: Yes, like you are saying, there are many things which are happening around us during the tour such as the media, the team, the race itself and the conditions. All of them have a meaning.

Regarding the race, I have to stay with the best cyclists day by day. During this competition, I have to take minimum risk, play safe and used the opportunities at the right time because it can put on you a lot of stress.

In the same way, you have to handle the media in the right manner. It's normal that I have to talk to the journalists almost every day and sometimes you don’t know what to say. There are times, they come to you with difficult questions or in some cases with questions that they have, in a way, already answered. It is difficult to say the right thing to everyone. However, for me, it’s a habit since I became a professional. I learned do handle the media step by step.

In the 2009 Tour de France, it was different because I won the race the year earlier. It was different in a strange way. The media created a battle between two riders, Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, and if I may say, the other riders consequently disappeared from the race. Afterwards, when this battle had become less interesting for the media, the journalists tried to put stress on the rest of the riders. We were there from the beginning! In a way, the personnel of the media did not show us respect, so why should we be respectful to them! Anyway, I told myself to enjoy the race the best I could.

Team sport

Thomas: Could you tell me the importance of teamwork in the Tour de France, especially for you, who had the role of captain with Team CSC and afterwards for Cervélo TestTeam?

Carlos: Teamwork in this sport, cycling, is almost everything. You have the staff, the cyclists; everyone knows what to do everyday. You feel confident for yourself and for your teammates, and in this way, the race is easier.

Thomas: When you joined team Once in 1997, you became a professional cyclist. As many, you have learned the basis of cycling and the role of assistant. Was it important for you to make all this process of learning?

Carlos: In my case, like you said, I worked for other riders a big part of my career and at some moments it was frustrating but I learned from that. There were situations where I felt strong and I had to sacrifice my strength to help another rider. Sometimes, I saw an opportunity in front of me, but I could not take it because it was not in the interest of the team. These situations helped me to be stronger and to become a good captain because now I know what my teammates are given sometimes. They are working for me and they sacrifice their energy for me. So, I have a different point of view on the matter because of my experience. I’m not just thinking about myself. I have a team behind me which supports me and I take care of them the same way.

Thomas: In a long race like the Tour de France, you’re close to your teammates for a long period. The tour lasts for more than three weeks! Are there some frictions that can occur because of this situation?

Carlos: Yes, we are 25 to 30 persons and we are together for almost one month. Of course, there are some frictions because sometimes there can be different points of view. Also, we have to consider that all the riders and the staff are getting tired. Everyone is getting tired, so, it’s more difficult to think and to do everything correctly. You try to drive everyone in the same direction and it’s not easy. However, with respect and when you listen to everyone while making decisions, everything is possible. I saw it before, and now, it’s what I do. I try to be positive and to drive the team in the right way. I’m just not thinking about myself, but for the benefit of the team.

The support

Thomas: To become better in what we do, a lot of persons influence or help us. Could you tell me who helped you to become a better cyclist?

Carlos: The first ones were my parents. They taught me the right ways of life and they supported me when I was sad or when I was winning and I was really happy. So, they taught me who I’m now. Afterwards, Josi Luis Pascua helped me a lot. He was my coach for two years when I was an amateur and also an additional three years when I was a professional. He was really important for me because he showed me to work and to train hard if I wanted something in my life. He pushed me in a very good way. So, he was very important for me.

Thomas: Are there some cyclists or teammates who helped you?

Carlos: Bjarne Riis and Manolo Saiz, they were my sport directors for many years. Bjarne for seven years and Manolo for four years, and I have learned a lot from them. They showed me the way to fulfil myself and to be one of the best riders in this sport.

Qualities to perform well on the tour

Thomas: First, what are the necessary qualities to perform well in the tour?

Carlos: I think you have to be smart in the Tour de France in order to make good decisions. Of course, you have to be a good rider, strength-wise, and also during the demanding time trial. In my case, I'm one of the best climbers in the world and that helped me in 2008 to win the Tour de France.

Thomas: You had great team leaders in the past such as Laurent Jalabert, Abraham Olano, Ivan Basso and Joseba Beloki. Did you learn from their different cycling skills and from their different personalities?

Carlos: Oh yes, everyone was different. Of course, I learned from all of them. You said, Laurent Jalabert and Ivan Basso… they showed me how professional they were. I learned a lot from them in that way, not just to be a captain. To become a team leader, you have to be a very good professional rider and I think they were truly professionals.

Thomas: I read somewhere that a good racer has to be organized, methodical and extremely cautious. Is it true about the notion of cautiousness and what does it mean?

Carlos: Yes, you must have a good plan in mind because a three week race is quite different from a one week race concerning endurance. You have to be ready for the whole three weeks. You need to do the right things in the right conditions. For this race, you must also be very methodical in order to be in a good state of mind all the time.

Thomas: Does it come with time?

Carlos: Well, it’s something you can learn but in a way you must also be born with these qualities. However, it is easier when you have someone who leads you in the right direction.

Thomas: In the Tour the France, the mountainous stages are quite important in the final results. Many cyclists suffer in these stages and I believe the word suffer is not too strong. You performed usually well in this type of condition...

Carlos (says on a happy tone): Oh yes, I’m a climber and I like mountainous stages. I feel free there... It is a part of my life; the mountains taught me lot of things. It's a place where I can give the best of myself. It is why I do pretty well in the mountain, because I like those stages.

Thomas: You have a positive attitude towards mountains…

Carlos: Yes! I was born with this physical condition which helps me, but I learned also to handle the suffering during the mountain stages. With experience, I have improved my cycling skills in the mountains. I remember when I was a kid, after school, I was running home to watch the Tour of Spain. The mountainous stages were my favourite, and like you can understand, they became my passion. Eventually, I became the one who is fighting in the mountains.

Thomas: And what about time trial?

Carlos: It’s something I must do, and of course, a time trial is very important to win a big race. For the French tour, you must work hard in all categories: time trials, climbing and flat stages. I worked all the time really hard in each of these types of events. Time trial is not my strong point and my time trial history prior to the 2008 tour was not that good...

Thomas: Indeed, since a long time ago, you knew that it was one of your weaknesses and you worked at it. I heard that you trained in 2004 on that aspect with Ivan Basso.

Carlos: Yes, I worked with Ivan, afterwards with the Swiss Fabian Cancellara1 and then with other riders. I worked very hard on that aspect because I know who I am, meaning what are my strong and my weak points. I trained in order to lose the least time in the time-trial stages. I know that for me it’s impossible to beat Fabian or a big specialist because they have more power than I in this kind of race.

Thomas: In the 2004 Tour de France, you had a fractured rib and still you finished 8th in the overall ranking. Not bad for a guy with a broken bone! Is it also important to overcome adversity in order to finish this 3,500 km race?

Carlos: You know people give themselves limits. Actually, we put limits in our lives. Cycling taught me and showed me that people don’t have limits. At least, I try to go beyond that. In a race, I work hard because I know I can win and I want to know how far I can go. I try to push in this manner and I believe it's a good way to know myself. For example, after pushing quite a lot in a race, I take a good break, I relax and I reflect on what I have done. Afterwards, I feel strong again and I'm happy of what I have done. Of course, when I push myself to the maximum in a race, I suffer and I have pain, but I can support it and I know the efforts are worth it.

Thomas: Let’s go back to your win at the Tour de France 2008. At the 17th stage of Alpe d’Huez, you made your decisive attack. Could you tell me more about this mountainous stage?

Carlos (explains with passion): Yes of course, that day, I pushed myself to the limit. I knew that it was my last opportunity to do something in that Tour de France. I knew I had to suffer in order to take as much time on the other riders because my dream was in sight. The team did a fantastic job. My teammates worked really hard and they prepared the stage for me. Also, I felt strong physically and mentally. I knew where I was and what I wanted, so, I went for it.

Thomas: Still, nothing was over on that tour. You needed to resist in the penultimate stage, the time trial. Cadel Evans, a specialist in this type of event, was in second place and he was not far behind you in the ranking. The preparation, the strategy and your fighting spirit paid off because you resisted in that time trial. Some people doubted that you will be still first after this stage!

Carlos: I know that everyone was talking this way, but I was calm, relaxed and I was feeling good. However, I have to say that I was tired because of the race, but I was living a dream. Oh yes, I was enjoying this dream.

I was wearing the yellow jersey and I told myself if Cadel wants to beat me, he needs to go faster than I. I had the advantage because I was leading the overall ranking, so, I did the time trial after him. The situation of the stage was like that.

However, everyone came to me and told me: "Carlos, you need a wonderful time trial. The best one of your life." And I said; this is not true. If we look at all my time trials in the Tour de France and we compare to the ones of Cadel, there is no problem. You could see in the past results that sometimes he was only just half a minute before me, and other times, he was just 12 or 15 seconds behind me. I did many Tour de France and every tour was different but in general I kept the same difference in time trials between me and him. So, I was calm because I was feeling good.

On the contrary, if Cadel would have won the time trial that day, I would have congratulated him. I would have done my best and this is the important thing. At that moment, I had full support of my teammates and my sport director. The time trial went to my advantage, so, it was a perfect day for me. Ha ha ha!

Thomas: After, the reward was incredible…

Carlos: Yes, it was amazing for me and for all the people who followed and supported me.

Thomas: In cycling, you have to look all the time at your competitors. Guys like Denis Menchov, Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Andy and Fränk Schleck and many other cyclists are really hungry to win it all. All this pack, does it make you push harder in the race?

Carlos: Of course, when I want to do something, I want to beat the other competitors. It gives you more strength and more energy. When I’m competing against all the cyclists you have enumerated, it’s nice because the race is always well organized and it’s more in control. To win against these really competitive guys, it's incredible.

Last words

Thomas: Do you see the young cyclists coming at you?

Carlos: Now, I have a lot of young competitors and I think they are very good. Many of them have good talents and they have a very good spirit.

Of course, they still have a lot to learn about cycling in order to make the proper decision in a particular situation. A frequent problem with the young riders, they become captain so quickly and they don’t know how to make these right decisions. I believe that they need to do something more before becoming captain of a team.

Nevertheless, it is important to develop the young riders because it is the future of cycling.

Thomas: As team captain, do you give tips or advice to other cyclists?

Carlos: Oh yes, if they ask me, I am always free to give some tips or advice. I must say, I don’t like to go to them and say you must do this and that. I just observe. On occasions, I may say to someone what I think about a situation even if it’s not good. In the same way, if something is good, I will say: "Keep it up this way because you are doing a nice job."

Thomas: And what about you... You will always give everything you’ve got?

Carlos (laughs): Of course, I will give my best as a professional cyclist. The day I cannot do my best, it will be time to go home.

Thomas (laughs): Good Carlos and thank you for sharing your experiences as a cyclist and especially on the Tour de France.

1. Fabian Cancellara, nicknamed Spartacus, is a four-time world time-trial champion (2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010) and he won the Olympic gold medal in time trial in Beijing, China in 2008.