Back to the roots – why cycling?
I started off pretty early, when I was five, with my brother. It was our father, a Guardia Civil officer back than, who brought us into the sport. He suffered a serious knee injury, and cycling was a great help in his rehabilitation. There was a small cycling school nearby. It was love at first sight. Then it went along like a natural evolution: step by step, year after year, I grew stronger, and the game became a job. I feel like one of the lucky few.
You've got an image of a diehard, a king of long escapes who never gives up. If things don't go your way one day, next day you are in the front again, hunting for glory. How do you handle so much workload?
When you see a clear-cut goal in front of you - say, to win a stage in a Grand Tour, you stay extraordinarily focused. I really appreciate it when my team gives me a chance to ride for myself, to hunt for a stage like it was in the Vuelta of 2016. I tried really hard, I was so close, but... At least, I gave it all, and when you know you didn't have anything left, you come to terms with it. To tell the truth, it's quite hard to ride in this manner, but I don't feel like whining.
This ability of riding several Grand Tours in a season on a high level, is it more physical or mental?
Well, you have to put in a couple of seasons of quality work first, to dwell on this foundation in this adventure. And then, yes, to ride day in day out for three weeks, you need to have a head for it. You are to tell yourself: I will be in a lot of pain, but that's the way it is, full stop. And there is yet another clue: if the team is really motivated and rides as a single whole, if you see that everybody suffers like you do, it makes your own suffering less painful.
You are a picture of a versatile rider, but there is certainly a type of race you like most. Which one?
Medium mountains. Somewhere in between those stages full of long climbs with 10-11% average gradient, which is too steep for us bigger guys, and the dead flat which I don't like at all.
But listen, everybody knows you as a born time trialist!..
Well fill it in, too. I was a Spanish ITT champion four times, and I didn't come by this easily, I place a high value on each of these titles. I won time trials in some stage races, too. Sure thing, I like racing against the clock.
You have a collection of great wins, but most certainly it doesn't mean there is nothing left for you as a dream race in cycling, does it?
In my junior years my biggest dream was to win a stage of the Tour de France. I won four of them, so I can say that the dream came true four times. Anyway, you have to aim higher all the time if you mean to carry on with your career. My biggest dream now is to win a stage in each of the Grand Tours. It's not so easy as you see, but I'll keep on trying.
Our audience loves being positively shocked by some impressive watts of the pros. Could you astonish them with something of this genre? Your best power for 20 minutes, or 5, or...
You know what, I'm not a big fan of all those figures. I mean, I see the point, I don't mind using power meters as long as they help the coach to assess the effectiveness of the program or my physical conditions at any given moment. But I don't feel like looking into it too closely, I know that “riding by watts” will block me psychologically, I just won't be able to ride the way I do.
Is it true that you tell the mechanics to keep the tyre pressure around 11 bar no matter what, and even when it rains you don't deflate the tubulars?
Yes, it's true! I like it when my bike feels as hard and sharp as a razor, I can't help it, even on a wet road, although I see pretty well the elevated risk of a crash. All of them, they try from time to time to talk me out of this, not only mechanics, but the physicians too, because it can create back problems. To no effect actually, most likely I'll remain like that.
You rode for different teams over the span of your long career, what sets the Astana apart?
I liked it here on the very first day, literally. The way they work, the atmosphere. You can stay calm and do your job. It applies to everyone: the riders, the staff, the management. Everybody knows what to do, stay focused and do their best – what else should I need?
What are your wishes to yourself and the team in this newly born season?
As years go by, the wishes don't vary too much. I want to ride strongly, starting from the early part of the season. I'll do my best to help the leaders make the maximum of their chances in the three-weeks tours; if an opportunity presents itself in the form of a stage win, and it won't go against the team strategy, I'll try to go for it. Normally there are chances for me in week-long races as well. I'd like to assure our fans, we have done our pre-seasonal homework very well, now all we need is their support and a bit of luck.
Then that is what we wish you and the guys: every bit of luck in all the races you'll ride.
Photo credit: @Bettiniphoto