Commentary

Sastre's deserved success a humbling experience

Updated: July 26, 2008, 5:46 PM ET
By Bobby Julich | Special to ESPN.com

Well, we've had a special bottle of champagne waiting here in our home in Nice for about nine years now, and we just popped it open Saturday to celebrate Carlos Sastre's defense of the yellow jersey. Even my daughter Olivia had a little sip!

My Team CSC-Saxo Bank teammate confirmed his talent and resilience and his desire to show the world he's the best. Now, he will ride into Paris on Sunday, cross the finish line and join a distinguished list of some of the Spanish riders who have won the Tour de France -- Miguel Indurain, Oscar Pereiro and Alberto Contador. (Think it's been a pretty good few months for Spanish sports fans?!)

[+] EnlargeCarlos Sastre
AP Photo/Bas CzerwinskiCarlos Sastre takes a 1:05 lead over Cadel Evans into Sunday's final stage of the Tour de France.

I've always respected Carlos, but now, I have a newfound admiration for him. I honestly think he's had a hard time dealing with the controversies over the past few years at the Tour, where positive tests have popped up and contributed to keeping Carlos off the podium. But he stuck to his guns and never changed his personality. Carlos is still Carlos.

I've been on the team with him for five years now, and sometimes you just want a rider to step up and say, "I'm here, and I'm ready to lead the team." Throughout the year, I'd say to him, "Hey man, if you want to be leader of CSC or any team, you have to give us something or give us motivation to work for you." But that's never been his style. He's not that kind of person. He's more calm, relaxed. Throughout his career, throughout this Tour, he never swayed from his personality or morals or goals. It just makes me respect him more.

When he can do what he did -- attacking at the bottom of the climb up L'Alpe-d'Huez and winning the famed stage, and then coming out Saturday with the most important time trial of his career -- it's humbling. You think you know the sport. Then you see Carlos do what he did these past few weeks, and you wonder if that no-stress style is the way to go, a way that is historically not my style.

It's just crazy to see, in hindsight, how Carlos had this plan all along. A lot of us questioned his decision to skip the Tour de Suisse. A lot of us wondered how he'd be at the Tour after he didn't look great at the Dauphine Libere and sat out the Giro. Carlos even wondered earlier in the year about the competition, about riders like Cadel Evans and Contador, who looked too good too early in the year. He asked and wondered aloud to me if these riders were coming to form too early. It was prophetic after seeing what came true. But he said from the beginning he was there to win the Tour de France.

We all knew he was capable of doing a decent time trial, but what he and Team CSC put the overall contenders through in the Tour's mountain stages -- it was taxing. Carlos didn't care about time splits Saturday; he was going to ride his time trial, and if it was good enough to win, it was good enough to win.

Once Carlos passed teammate Frank Schleck on the course, he then had to realize the Tour win was in his pocket. It had to have been difficult for Frank. But it goes back to tactics. From the beginning, even way back to our team meeting in December, the plan was we would ride for Carlos, and Frank and his brother Andy would support him.

But given all that has transpired in the race -- for Frank to be in the yellow jersey and allow Carlos to attack during the L'Alpe-d'Huez stage and knowing Frank isn't as strong as Carlos in time trials -- Team CSC made all the right tactical moves. If CSC would have left it the way it was, with Frank still wearing yellow, into the final time trial, it wouldn't have been the same. More important, it all shows the unity and teamwork CSC has. If one of our teammates is on the top step of the podium, that's all that matters.

It's hard to say, but for me to see all of this drama unfold from my home and see my team take the yellow into Paris, along with Andy's best young rider jersey and the team's stage wins. … I'm a fan of my own team. It's tough to admit that, tough to say it because I don't want it to come off as cliché or biased, but it's really true. It's all very humbling for me.

[+] EnlargeChristian Vande Velde
AP Photo/Christophe EnaAmerican cyclist Christian Vande Velde finished fourth in Saturday's stage to move into fifth place overall in the Tour standings.

What happened to Cadel?

For the second straight Tour, Cadel Evans was in position to take the yellow jersey heading into the final time trial. Last year, he battled against Contador, and finished second. This year, against Sastre, Evans will again finish second.

I think everything just caught up with Cadel. The pressure of going in as a Tour favorite, getting off to a good start, wearing yellow for a few stages, then the punishing attacks in the Alps. Carlos must have been right -- maybe Cadel peaked too soon.

Christian Vande Velde

The Garmin-Chipotle rider is going to finish fifth overall in the Tour de France. What more can you say?

The American's finish Saturday was not unexpected -- he finished fourth in the stage, posted the best time among the top six overall leaders and moved from sixth to fifth overall. He went for it Saturday. And he did it after surviving the mountain stages. You have to wonder what the overall outcome would have been if he didn't lose time after falling on that Stage 16 descent.

But I have nothing but respect and love for the guy. I've known him since 1995, when we were at a U.S. national team training camp together and we played a round of golf. I think he was 19 at the time. I've watched him go from being one of the best young riders at the 1999 Tour, to piloting Lance Armstrong with U.S. Postal, to fighting through a few tough years, to coming to our team for a few years, to blossoming into a top-5 Tour rider. It's amazing.

But he learned from some of the best leaders in the sport, riders like Lance and Carlos and Ivan Basso. He knows how to be a leader of a team. And he confirmed Saturday he's a champion. This is a guy a team can rally around and support. Over these next couple of years, he's going to be vying for a podium spot in the Tour.

Surprise …

Stefan Schumacher winning the stage, especially after being in the breakaway group in three of the past five days. That he was still able to win the stage, as well as the first time trial, is amazing. We are looking at the possible Olympic champion.

Disappointment …

The Schleck brothers. I've spent so much time with these guys. I wanted to see a little more from them Saturday. When I saw Carlos pass Frank, I felt something there. I feel like we have to change something. If it's my responsibility or team director Bjarne Riis' responsibility, we have to look at what we can change there. Frank is one of the best climbers in the world; if we can make his time-trialing a little better, he'll be more of an overall threat.

Don't get me wrong: I love these guys, but there is work to do in this discipline for them in the future. Andy will win the Tour soon, and this is a wake-up call for him as well.

Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.

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