Tour de France: Sastre the honest journeyman hits back for Tour's credibility

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The Independent Online

First it was Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, then football's European Championship, then Nadal at Wimbledon. Yesterday Carlos Sastre continued Spain's rampant run of sporting success this year with a victory in the Tour de France as stunning as it was unexpected.

For years a follower rather than a leader, the veteran CSC-Saxo Bank rider defied most predictions on Wednesday by blasting off at the foot of cycling's most mythical climb, Alpe d'Huez, for the double whammy of a stage win and the yellow jersey. "We'd talked together in secret about him going for it there." his mechanic Alejandro Torralbo said. "After he'd done that, I always thought he'd be difficult to beat."

However, the real twist in the plot of the 2008 Tour came in Saturday's final 53 kilometre (33 miles) time trial. On paper, Sastre's advantage of 1 minute 24 seconds was nowhere near enough for him to fend off his most dangerous challenger, the Australian Cadel Evans.

The Silence-Lotto rider is one of cycling's most capable time trialists and in his previous 14 encounters with Sastre in the speciality known as the "race of truth" Evans had defeated the Spaniard in every one. Victory, thus, looked like a formality.

But remarkably, even after 10km of racing, the difference between Evans and Sastre was a mere five seconds – far too little for the Australian to continue to dream of ousting Sastre from the lead. So it proved. While Evans was a bundle of nerves and fluffed his chance, the Spaniard's cool, collected approach paid off completely.

Sastre even managed to overtake his team-mate Frank Schleck, who had left the starting ramp three minutes before. His final time loss on the day to Evans was just 29 seconds.

After becoming the fourth-oldest post-war Tour winner, Sastre argued that his victory had materialised for three simple reasons: "My focus, my team and my physical condition.

"We took the right decisions at the right time," he added. "Before the race, I had no idea whether I could win the Tour. But I knew I would give it everything just the same."

Flanked by Evans and the Austrian climber Bernhard Kohl on the final podium, Sastre was not the only Spaniard to triumph in Paris yesterday. The three-times world champion Oscar Freire could not win the last stage, which went to the Belgian Gert Steegmans, but none the less became the first Spaniard ever to take the green points jersey.

As for Sastre's overall win it is his country's third in a row – but of the three by far the most resounding. After the 2006 Tour went to Spain's Oscar Pereiro only when the American Floyd Landis was disqualified for doping, last year's winner, Alberto Contador, discovered he was the race leader at 11pm one night in the third week.

His team manager knocked on his hotel bedroom door to tell him that the yellow jersey holder Michael Rasmussen had been withdrawn for lying about his whereabouts during training. Even though the Spaniard made a creditable defence of his lead in the final time trial – against Evans – it was hardly the stuff of sporting legend.

Unconfirmed reports yesterday evening that the Kazakh rider Dimitry Fofonov had tested positive for a banned substance were hardly welcome news for the Tour.

The more optimistic would argue that Sastre's team – CSC-Saxo Bank – are one of four top squads to have enforced one of the most rigorous set of independently controlled, anti-doping programmes to be found in any sporting discipline. After the sport has tottered for years towards an abyss of zero credibility, Sastre's victory may represent a small but significant step back in the right direction for road cycling.

For the sport in Spain – now down to just two major teams one of whom has a French sponsor – it also could provide much-needed respite.

Sastre is the oldest of Spain's seven Tour winners and has struck gold only on his eighth participation. But cycling's new generation have had a huge impact on this year's race, too, with 23-year-old Mark Cavendish's second crack at the Tour confirming him as one of the world's greatest sprinters. One piece of data says it all: the Manxman's total of four victories this month is already half that of Great Britain's most prolific Tour stage winner, Barry Hoban.

Spain, then, did not have it all their own way in this year's Tour – and British fans can expect a lot more from Cavendish in the years to come.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for

Shifting gears: From drama to dodgy food on long and winding road

Most exciting sprint

Mark Cavendish was so tired that he was just 24 hours away from abandoning the race, but his charge to his fourth victory in stage 13 at Nîmes was in a class of its own. "I've never seen anything like that before," said the triple world champion Oscar Freire. In just 150 metres Cavendish opened up a gap of three bike lengths, so much that he even slowed slightly before the line then celebrated his fourth bunch sprint win. Just 23, the Manxman is not just tipped for sporting greatness, he is already there.

Most crucial stage

A draw between stage 17 and stage 20. Stage 17 was where Carlos Sastre blasted off at the first of Alpe d'Huez's 21 hairpin bends and come the summit, he had secured both the stage win and the leader's yellow jersey. His tenacious defence of his overall advantage on the highly unfavourable terrain of stage 20's 53-kilometre (33-mile) time trial did not make for such exciting television. But by keeping his cool and a steady pace, Sastre kept himself in yellow and kept key rival Cadel Evans out of it.

Strongest team

CSC-Saxo Bank. The deserved winner of the best-team prize in Paris, Sastre's squad had a stranglehold on the mountain stages. It was not just the Spaniard and his two co-leaders, Frank and Andy Schleck, who wreaked havoc on the cols. Heftily built riders like Jens Voigt and Kurt-Asle Arvesen were equally on song whenever the roads steepened. They were the team that Evans needed to win the Tour and did not have.

Luckiest rider

John-Lee Augustyn. The South African was the first of the pack to scale the Tour's highest mountain pass, the 26km Bonette-Restefond, and then promptly rode off the edge of the road on the perilous descent to Jausiers. Clinging to the side of the mountain like a Lycra-clad Superman as his bike span out of view below him, Augustyn slowly clambered up the screeslopes with the aid of a spectator. "I thought I was going to die," he said later.

Worst drug scandal

Every year the Tour has a drugs scandal, but Riccardo Ricco's was the worst by far. As he was escorted away by gendarmes from the race start in Lavelanet, the Italian's failed positive for EPO left the Tour bereft of a double stage winner in the mountains and an outsider for the overall classification – and facing its old nightmare that the doping problem is unsolved.

Strangest sleepover

The Hotel Rex in Tarbes is a plain-looking Edwardian building. Inside, however, it is for ever 1968: kitsch monochrome furniture jostles for space with metre-wide, see-through plastic tubes containing perpetually twinkling interior ropes of tiny neon lights. Even the bathrooms have their own surreal edge: black toilet paper, no less. With some three dozen gendarmes milling around one morning – they came to arrest a Spanish cyclist who had failed a doping test – the three-week Tour suddenly feels like one very bad acid trip.

Least edible meal

Montluçon, the finish of stage 19, has several claims to fame, two of them being it is the birth place of French porn star Jean Val Jean and Tour star Roger Walkowiak. But a foodie's paradise, at least for the press of the Tour de France, it was not. The media's lunchtime buffet consisted of a minuscule bag of crisps, a can of bizarre-tasting fish pâté, and some processed vegetables nestling in a bed of yellow paste in a small tin – squidgy bread and apple stew an optional extra. Come back, school dinners, all is forgiven.

Alasdair Fotheringham