MONACO // Carlos Sastre, the defending Tour de France champion, says he does not care whether Lance Armstrong is in the peloton or not ahead of today's race start in Monaco. Sastre was a surprise winner last year after a brilliant solo effort on L'Alpe d'Huez and has every confidence he can defend his crown. But even if that means having to beat seven-time Tour winner Armstrong, the Spaniard is non-plussed.
"I really don't care who is in the field, whether it's Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, the Schleck brothers, whoever," he said. "All that matters is that I have to beat them all and be the best. Come Paris, nothing else is important." Sastre faces a difficult defence. Since last year's race, he has switched teams, joining Cervelo, who are making their Tour debut. A year ago, he was riding for the strongest team in the field, CSC (now Saxo Bank) and had the likes of Andy and Frank Schleck, Stuart O'Grady, Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Jens Voigt as strong support riders in the mountains.
His Cervelo team look far weaker, on paper at least, but Sastre believes he has the experience and ability to become the first rider to defend a Tour title since Armstrong. "Saxo Bank are a very strong team, maybe the strongest there is along with Astana [Armstrong's team]," said Sastre. "But I have the mental strength of knowing that I can win the Tour, and not many people in the peloton can say that.
"On the toughest days in the mountains, I will just say to myself 'you can do this Carlos' and I'm confident I'll have the legs to beat them all." Sastre appears to have the form. In May, he finished an impressive fourth in the Giro d'Italia - just four minutes behind race winner Denis Menchov - but looked to be riding within himself. The 34-year-old played down Menchov's Tour chances saying he "looked to have put too much into the Giro" and warned that his biggest threat would come from a fellow Madrid resident. "Apart from me of course, Alberto Contador is the man to beat," he said.
"He's spent his whole season building for this one race and he's a formidable rider. He won the Giro and the Vuelta last season and he'll be particularly strong in the mountains, where this race will for sure be won." Sastre will set off last from the blocks in the opening time trial today with the No 1 jersey as defending champion for the first of the race's 3,500 kilometres. And he said the race would, like 2008, once more be decided in the mountains but not until the penultimate stage up Mont Ventoux. "It will be a very tight race and I think there will still be maybe four or five riders possible of winning the Tour as late as Ventoux," he said. "I'm sure I'll be one of them."