Humble star who defied lure of designer drugs

In his finest hour Carlos Sastre honoured the brother-in-law who lost a fight with addiction. By Alasdair Fotheringham
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The Independent Online

An intensely private man, Carlos Sastre made his most expressive gesture during the Tour de France as he crossed the line of the decisive time trial on Saturday afternoon and pointed a single finger at the sky.

It was the 33-year-old's way of remembering his brother-in-law, Jose Maria Jimenez, who died of a heart attack while in treatment at a Madrid clinic for drug addicts in 2003.

"He left this life too early," Sastre said afterwards. "He was the guy who taught me the most about cycling and the guy who made me cry the most. This was the race he dreamt of winning, and making that gesture was a way of saying we crossed this finishing line together."

"El Chava", as Jimenez was known, was a superb but utterly erratic mountain climber, who finally drifted off into a murky sub-world of drug abuse and failed comebacks before an untimely death.

Born in Madrid, Sastre grew up in the same mountain town of El Barraco as "Chava". But it was hardly an idyllic childhood. In the 1990s a boom in cattle farming in the region meant the local youth were suddenly flush with cash and nowhere to spend it and as a consequence, fast cars and designer drugs became rife.

To keep the local kids away from dealers, Sastre's father, Victor, ran a cycling school, so it was inevitable his son and Jimenez should cross paths. Jimenez aimed as high as Sastre, only to fall foul of his addictions, but Sastre stayed hooked on riding his bike pure and simple.

In 1998, he turned professional with ONCE, but after four years found himself limited by the charismatic but highly controversial team manager, Manolo Saiz. "I was only once allowed to lead the squad and I won," Sastre says. "Other than that I was condemned to work for the rest."

Even so, at ONCE Sastre began to build up a list of top 10 finishes in the Tours of Spain and France, which he then continued after moving to his current team, CSC-Saxo Bank, in 2002. A notoriously conservative rider – which made his successful attack on Alpe d'Huez all the more surprising – the Spaniard seemed almost to prefer racking up respectable but anodyne places on general classification to actual victories. Alpe d'Huez, indeed, was only his sixth win in an 11-year career.

Almost as quietly spoken and fond of the clichés as Spain's greatest ever sportsman, Miguel Indurain, just like "Big Mig" Sastre has hidden depths.

Among them is working with several charities, including a hospital for terminally ill children in Ghent, and another for Down syndrome patients in his home town of Avila. A straightforward family man, on winning a Tour stage in 2003 Sastre pulled out a child's dummy when he crossed the line in honour of his son, 18 months old at the time.

Five years later, his thoughts on winning – and gesture – were for his late brother-in-law.

Sastre may have become a world sports star but, to his credit, even in his moment of glory he remains resolutely close to his roots.