Winning the Tour de France was my dream and I believed I could do it ever since I turned professional. But I was surprised by how hard it was when I made my debut with ONCE in 2001, working for Joseba Beloki and Igor González de Galdeano.
My goal was to be in front for the mountain stages and in every single breakaway: I was attacking from start to finish. Still, the toughest memories are from the first week and its aggressive flat stages, being more tired from the stress than the 200-kilometre days.
When I did a few recovery rides back home afterwards, I still thought the TV helicopter was hovering over my head. I had the anxiety and that noise in my mind for another ten days, so the first Tour de France was 40 days long for me. After that, every one got easier. As soon as you know how it is raced, you can control the stress. Stress is a part of life and if you use it in the right way, you can be successful. Some people can handle it better than others too.
Manolo Saiz was a good manager who showed me the hard work needed to be a professional bike rider, and Bjarne Riis developed a winner. I was with Bjarne from 2002 to 2008, and I immediately had the freedom to win races.
Life changed for me after my first Tour de France stage win at Ax-3 Domaines in 2003. I got messages from everywhere, it’s like the first time people knew who I was. The team relied more on me, my salary went up and I showed myself that I can improve.
As for putting my daughter’s dummy in my mouth to celebrate victory, I had that pacifier in my jersey pocket in every single race for maybe ten years. Every time I went for a bit of food, my hand would brush it and I would think of them. It gave me great confidence and passion: I knew that I didn’t want to make any mistakes because there were two very important people waiting for me at home.
It took me some years to win the Tour de France. My way was all about being patient and waiting for the crucial moment. There’s a lot to be said for experience too, knowing the race well and how to attack it decisively.
In 2008, I believed I was going to do it, I was mentally and physically ready. At first, Team CSC was split. The Schleck brothers maybe had their own goal and they thought they could win the race as well. That meant that perhaps there was some initial misunderstanding. But after the first pre-race talk, everyone knew they needed to protect the interests of the team: me, Andy and Frank.
My team-mates put me in the best position for every obstacle in the first week, which gave me confidence. And the road book was already in my mind before the race started, I knew almost every corner. I was very calm because I was saving my strength for Alpe d’Huez, the best moment to attack. It came after a very mountainous day [over the Bonette into Jausiers].
Beforehand, my soigneur Bengt Valentino Andersen said to me “on Alpe d’Huez, you’re going to fight like a lion and fly like an eagle.” I kept that in my mind: the first five kilometres of my attack, I was suffering like hell to make the gap. And after there was still pain everywhere but I was enjoying the moment too. Seeing a million people watching the Tour on that mountain, shouting and jumping around, was great. But that’s the outside, the important thing for every person must be what you feel inside – and inside, I was very happy. When I watch races on TV now, I enjoy the way that riders attack and take decisions like that.
I never thought about gaining two minutes, I just went as fast as I could. And I did it, I set up the Tour de France victory that day. I’m not the kind of person thinking in the past, more in the present and trying to organise the future. But it was another great cycling moment and I’m happy to be a part of it because the sport means a lot to me.
Winning the Tour was my dream come true. Before the Champs-Élysées, I could feel the love of my team-mates, they were hugging and kissing me. After crossing the line, everything moves slow and fast at the same time. Everyone wanted to touch me and take photos with me, which also takes out a lot of energy. Then, for the first time in four weeks, I got to see my family.
For the next week, I might have been one of the most famous people in the world, but suddenly I needed to drive 500 kilometres to an evening criterium and dinner was a burger in bed because all the restaurants were closed. I didn’t feel so fancy anymore!
In the years since I retired from cycling, I have a bike store and I support the Victor Sastre Foundation. I also have the opportunity to ride my bike in different events around the world, thanks to that Tour de France victory.
I’ve been back to Alpe d’Huez since too, though only up to the corner with my name, hairpin number 17, which isn’t very far. I don’t want to mess up the nice memories I have of that climb.
Carlos Sastre was a professional cyclist between 1998 and 2011 and finished on the podium of all three Grand Tours