For years, Carlos Sastre has been on the outside looking in at the Tour de France.
He's had five top-10 finishes in the Tour since 2002, the best being his third-place finish in 2006 (he finished fourth, but was bumped up to third after Floyd Landis was stripped of his Tour win). He's been one of the most consistent riders over that time. He has said for years that he is the leader of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, that he is able to win the Tour de France.
With his Stage 17 win Wednesday, he finally proved why he's capable of winning cycling's biggest race.
Sastre's biggest problem over the years has been that he wasn't aggressive enough at the right times. After the way things played out heading into the final climb of Stage 17, the famed ascent to L'Alpe-d'Huez, there was only one right time left for Sastre, and he took it. He and the overall contenders were still together after two beyond-category climbs of Galibier and Croix-de-Fer, which meant someone from CSC had to attack at the bottom of L'Alpe-d'Huez. That someone was Sastre, who, with about 13 kilometers left, put it all on the line.
If you watched earlier in the stage, Sastre didn't look as though he'd have the punch needed for such a late attack; you almost waited for Andy and/or Frank Schleck to make the move. In fact, many observers including myself thought there would be more aggressiveness on the second climb up Croix-de-Fer. But Sastre is an experienced Grand Tour rider. He gets stronger as the race goes on. Sastre's move at the bottom of the final climb was a two-pronged attack -- to get away, try to win the stage and take away time from the other contenders, or, if he got caught, it would have set up an attack from one of the Schleck brothers. But Carlos came through, and keep in mind he did it at age 33, not a spring chicken by cycling standards.
But this was a team effort from start to finish, from Stuart O'Grady and Fabian Cancellara's early pace-setting to the Schlecks' strategic, frequent, mini-accelerations up the final climb that controlled the contenders group and kept anyone else from getting into a constant rhythm. Without their efforts, Sastre's attack wouldn't have been as successful.
Now, the race isn't over yet. I still believe it will all come down to Saturday's time trial, but no matter what happens, it's been a successful race for CSC between its two stage wins, riders holding the yellow and white (best young rider) jerseys and the overall race lead.
The other strong race favorite, Cadel Evans, is still within striking distance, sitting fourth overall, 1:34 behind Sastre. He remained with the leaders group through the final climb and was very patient throughout the entire stage. Not once did he seem to panic. To do that and keep the yellow jersey in play, especially considering he had no help from any of his Silence-Lotto teammates, is impressive. He's a solid time trialist, so he still has a shot.
American rider Christian Vande Velde, meanwhile, still has a chance to reach the podium. He's in sixth overall, 4:41 behind. He had an incredible ride Wednesday, staying with the leaders group the entire way. It's so unfortunate he crashed during Tuesday's Stage 16 descent, especially when he was gaining back time on the overall contenders. It confirms that bad luck happens in the Tour, but as long as you literally don't break anything or get sick, you're still in the running. The way Christian rode Wednesday, he deserves to be where he is. What's more dangerous for the competition is what Vande Velde has been targeting for weeks -- Saturday's time trial. When you have that goal in your head for two weeks, along with confidence from riding your strongest Tour to date, a stage win isn't out of Vande Velde's reach. It's just unfortunate that a crash might be the difference between third and fifth.
Many are looking ahead to Saturday's big stage as riders breathed a sigh of relief after Wednesday's stage, knowing the worst of the race is behind them and Paris is just around the corner.
Still, riders won't take Stages 18 and 19 lightly. Stage 18 can be particularly dangerous since it includes a finish at Saint Etienne, which is one of the hardest areas to race because it's up and down and difficult to navigate. You also have a Category 2 climb less than 42 kilometers away from the finish. There will likely be a breakaway group and it's a perfect stage for a rider who's 10, 15 minutes down to break out and try to erase some time. Stage 19 will be much more controlled. Either way, you have to be careful and watch your competition. Everyone in the Tour is a fantastic rider; the group can be aggressive at times, especially with so many teams with so much to gain. You may see a little collaboration between a few teams over the next few days.
Another big part of the next two days is recovery and adjusting your body from riding in the mountains to riding in a relatively flat time trial. When you ride in mountain stages, you're usually pushing 70-80 revolutions per minute and using your muscles in different ways. In a time trial, you're likely averaging 100 rpm (muscles don't have to work as hard because you don't have to drag your body weight up the climbs). Obviously, your body needs to get used to that, so riders will be simulating motorpacing in the peloton by spinning their legs and staying on wheels as much as possible over the next two days. It helps spin out all the toxins that have built up in your muscles over the past few mountain stages and helps your body readapt to the higher cadence you'll need in the time trial.
Being serious about your diet and making sure you're eating and drinking enough in the race are also givens for the riders.
Again, Sastre. He was ultra calm from the beginning of the Tour, but not as strong as he was Wednesday. He deserves to win it all after Stage 17. Not many riders have the cojones to attack in a mountain stage from so far out ahead by themselves ... and win. Many riders often play their cards too close to the chest. Last year, he tried a similar bold move and it didn't work. This time, he succeeded.
I feel a little sorry for Evans. He's been so impressive, basically staying in the overall contention while being isolated with no real help from his teammates. If you remember, Yaroslav Popovych made an aggressive attack during Tuesday Stage 16 after being absent from the Tour up to that point. He was gunning for a stage win, but didn't get it. Did he use up too much energy, energy that could have been better used to help Evans up the mountains Wednesday?
I wonder what the plan was from the Silence-Lotto camp. Still, given Cadel's mountain biking background (a very individualistic sport), he's used to the isolation, more so than riders who are brought up on road courses, where "team" is enforced more. Either way, Cadel is a bull. He just puts his head down and goes.
Can't wait for Saturday's stage (I'll have a full preview Friday). And if you weren't a fan of my CSC-Saxo Bank team before Wednesday's stage, then you have to be one now.
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.