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News feature, August 8, 2008

Sastre – Champion with a heart

In the saddle, Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre is tough against his rivals, offering them beatings like in Alpe d'Huez in this year's Tour de France. Off the saddle, however, Sastre reveals his social side, and often talks about his family and engages in a few charities. His social awareness helped develop the only fan club he has. Cyclingnews' Bjorn Haake took a look at the Amigos Carlos Sastre.

Sastre presents a check for 10,000 euros
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A day after winning the criterium in Aalst, Belgium, Carlos Sastre visited the University of Gent hospital to meet with children who have cancer. Sastre gave out T-shirts, hats and other things that made the children's eyes light up. It was Sastre's fourth visit to the hospital, but his involvement in this institution in Belgium stems from a curious fact. His only fan club – besides one of close family members – Amigos Carlos Sastre, is in Aalter, near Gent.

The club counted 500 members before the Tour de France. Barely a week after the race had concluded, the membership, which is based on donations, was up to 700. As little as five euro will do the trick, with no upper limits. The club was founded by Freddy Plehiers, who is friends with CSC's team doctor Joost De Maeseneer.

Maeseneer introduced Plehiers to Sastre in 2002. Plehiers and Sastre crossed paths several times after that at races. Sastre started to recognise Plehiers and his friend, Roland Schautteet. Schautteet had the added advantage of speaking Spanish.

Schautteet now serves as the president of the Amigos Carlos Sastre, and has helped to push the charitable aspect of the club. At the Six Days in Gent in November 2007, Plehiers and Schautteet were able to present a check of 5,000 euro to the foundation. The club had raised 2,500 euro and Sastre doubled the money. Sastre presented the check to the president of the University.

Carlos Sastre presents a hat to a young girl
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At the criterium in Aalst, a day after the 2008 Tour de France had concluded, members could be seen walking around the course. They enjoyed the racing, but always had one watchful eye for potential new members. Dieter Dullaers and Christoph Eeckhout were two of those that signed up new donors on the spot. "We signed up quite a few people this afternoon, when Sastre was in Aalter. There were lots of people and the press was there, too."

Sastre pitched in even more this time. From the money he received in Aalst, he donated 10,000 euro. Another 7,500 euro came from the criterium in Holland. And he equipped the club with 150 T-shirts, with the sale's proceeds also going to the foundation. Besides all this activity, Sastre also supports a fund for children with Down's Syndrome in Spain. That fund is supported by multiple famous Spanish people, including football goalie Iker Casillas, whose team just won the European Championships.

Family values

In 2006 Sastre told Plehiers and Schautteet that he was giving a party for his newborn son in Valladolid. "He invited us to come down to Spain," Plehiers remembered. "We couldn't make it at the time, but Sastre told us to give him a call anytime we would be near Ávila."

The moment came later that year, when Plehiers and Schautteet were in Salamanca with their wives. They gave Sastre a call and the Spaniard delivered on his promise. The Belgian duo went to Ávila, where they had coffee with their idol. Sastre also invited them to a restaurant. "He paid everything and it was the first time I had eaten in such an expensive restaurant," Plehiers recalled. Sastre then convinced the pair to stay in Ávila for another night. "We quickly agreed and called our wives, who had stayed back in Salamanca. We told them we would come back the next day," Plehiers laughed.

The Amigos Carlos Sastre was busy in Aalst
Photo ©: Mary Fox
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The Belgians were impressed with Sastre, who mostly talked about family. The Spaniard came close to quitting cycling when his brother-in-law, former professional rider José María Jiménez, died in 2003. Plehiers praised Bjarne Riis for getting Sastre back on track. "We asked ourselves what we could do for Sastre. We decided on a fan club."

The man himself had simple thoughts on that. "That's crazy – I don't even have a fan club in Spain!" Sastre protested. But the Belgians persisted. They decided to donate the membership fees to the "Kinder Kanker Fonds", a foundation to support children with cancer in Belgium. Plehiers still remembers Sastre's exact words: "If you can use my image to make life better for these kids, you can count on me," Plehiers repeated the phrase that effectively started the club. The CSC-Saxo Bank rider agreed to match every euro raised.

Putting the fan in fanclub

Carlos Sastre appeared in Aalter
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61 year-old Plehiers uses his flexible three day-per-week schedule to go to as many races as he can. He was at the start of the Tour de France in Brest, witnessed the time trial in Cholet and was there at the rest day. He also followed stage 16 on the col de la Bonnette-Restefond. And of course he and other fan club members went to Alpe d'Huez.

Dullaers was glued to his TV back home, and admitted, "I didn't expect Sastre to win. Podium yes, but yellow? There was a big party afterwards!" Plehiers travelled on to witness the all-important penultimate stage, the time trial from Cérilly to Saint Amand Montrond. For other members the suspense was too much and they returned home. But some made it to Paris the next day to celebrate on the Champs-Elysées.

Dullaers and some of his friends have met Sastre and his family as well. They went down to Ávila without an agenda, but doors quickly opened. "We told them we were from Belgium and from the Sastre fan club. They served us food and drinks and Sastre took us to a restaurant. All of his family members are really nice people." Dullaers, a cycling fan since he was a little boy, described the fan club as mostly Belgian. "There are a few members from Spain. There is one small fan club in Spain. It is mostly brothers and cousins from Sastre. They total maybe 50 people. Amigos Carlos Sastre is much bigger!"


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Images by Mary Fox

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