THE BEST IS YET TO COME
Esteban Chaves came of age in 2016, coming within one climb of winning the Giro and taking third at the Vuelta after a spectacular attack on Alberto Contador. Orica’s exuberent Colombian now thinks he can win a Grand Tour
D uring 2016 only three riders managed to finish on the podium twice in the Grand Tours: Chris Froome won the Tour de France and finished second at the Vuelta a España; Nairo Quintana won the Vuelta and finished third at the Tour; and Esteban Chaves was second at the Giro d’Italia and third at the Vuelta.
Chaves’s lack of a Grand Tour win arguably left him one step below Froome and Quintana but his victory at Il Lombardia, the first by a South American rider, showed his class and confirmed his huge potential for 2017 and beyond. As Alberto Contador falters with age, and Vincenzo Nibali approaches the beginning of the end of his career, Chaves seems destined to join the elite group of riders who can consistently win the sport’s biggest and most prestigious races - both Grand Tours and Classics.
The Colombian has reached the top despite a hard start to his career. In 2013 he suffered multiple fractures, damaged vital nerves and lost the use of his right arm in a crash at the Trofeo Laigueglia race in Italy. Fortunately the Orica team, and especially Spanish-based directeur sportif Neil Stephens, believed in his comeback and still offered him a contract, inspiring him to overcome
his injuries. In 2014 Chaves won stages at the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse and then finished the Vuelta a España. In 2015 he was even stronger, winning the first uphill finish at the mountainous Vuelta a España. He went on to wear the leader’s red jersey for six days and finished fifth overall.
This season he finished second to Vincenzo Nibali at the Giro d’Italia, only conceding the maglia rosa on the final mountain stage to Sant’Anna di Vinadio. At the Vuelta a España he fought hard for a place on the podium, attacking and distancing Alberto Contador on stage 20 after a superb tactical performance from his Orica-Bike-Exchange team-mates. Three weeks later he won Il Lombardia with a mix of climbing ability, panache and tactical acumen.
Chaves turns 27 on January 17. He is in the prime of his career and feels he is ready to win a Grand Tour in 2017.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself. It’s true. Each season I always set myself a goal but always try to do a little bit better. Always,” Chaves tells Procycling as he looks back on his remarkable season.
“I think we’ve reached a great level,” he continues. “But now we’ve got to keep our feet on the ground and keep working because the hardest part is still to come. If everything goes okay, then we can stay at this level for a number of years and even try to do even better. That would be amazing.”
“I am what I am. What has happened to me, my early career, my crash and recovery, and my comeback and recent results have made me what I am”
Chaves took pink with two days to go at the Giro, but he’d lose the lead one day later
Chaves speaks quietly but brims with natural enthusiasm. He smiles at life because he knows his career could have ended at the 2013 Trofeo Laigueglia and he will forever be grateful to the Colombian surgeons who transplanted tiny nerves from his foot and repaired several others in a nine-hour operation. He will never be able to collect a musette at speed during races but his crash is a fading memory as he looks optimistically to the future. Many of his rivals in the peloton could learn much from his positive approach to life.
Orica-Bike-Exchange directeur sportif Matt White has witnessed Chaves’s enthusiasm first hand but also describes him as a ‘hijo di puta’ (untranslatably rude but underlining his determination) to Procycling, pointing out his almost ruthless will to win.
“In Spanish we say ‘ser resiliente’. In English I think you call it resilience. I’ve had difficult moments in my life and my cycling career but I carried on, I was resilient,” Chaves says of the apparent inner strength that has guided him during his comeback.
“I am what I am. What has happened to me, the way my parents brought me up, my early career, my crash and recovery, and my comeback and recent results have made me what I am,” he says.
Chaves uses ‘we’ when talking about his success with Orica. He is good at staying on-message and thanking his team-mates and staff. When other riders talk this way it seems they have been brainwashed by media training. But with Chaves it seems genuine. When the Giro d’Italia ended in Turin, it was Chaves and not overall winner Vincenzo Nibali who got the loudest cheer from the crowd. The Italian tifosi recognised his talent and empathised with his achievements. Chaves was happy to sing along and celebrate with the tifosi, despite losing out on victory on the last mountain stage of the race.
“When I look back at the Giro, I can’t be disappointed at not winning. The result is what it is. I accept it. I’m proud to have finished on the podium in the Giro. Not many can say that,” he explains.
“I was disappointed to lose the maglia rosa but only for about two minutes after I’d crossed the line at Sant’Anna di Vinadio. After that I got over the disappointment and was happy again. I like to keep things in perspective. It was only a bike race. It’s not a war or the end of the world. It’s not that I can never ride a bike again like I once thought, or that I’ll never seen my parents again. It was just a bike race.”
His parents and girlfriend Nathaly were at the final stages of the Giro d’Italia and shared in his happiness. They also shared his sporting reaction to his defeat: his parents were even seen congratulating Nibali with a hug soon after he had crossed the line in Sant’ Anna di Vinadio.
“That’s how they are. My dad really loves cycling and he really admires Nibali and so when he saw him do a great ride he wanted to congratulate him, even though his son was losing the pink jersey in the same moment,” Chaves explains.
While most Colombian cycling fans were cheering on Nairo Quintana at the Tour de France, Chaves spent July training hard at home near Bogotá for the Vuelta a España –the second major goal of his season. His success in 2015 and at the Giro d’Italia meant he was no longer a dark horse. However, the presence of Quintana, Froome and Alberto Contador raised the level of the Vuelta, perhaps preventing Chaves from winning his first Grand Tour but adding lustre to his eventual third place overall.
Chaves lost over three minutes to Froome in the stage 19 time trial and 1:50 to Quintana when the Movistar rider ambushed his British nemesis on the road to Formigal. However, he fought back on stage 20 and gained 1:24 on Contador to take the final place on the podium in Madrid alongside Quintana and Froome.
“I’m honestly satisfied with my Vuelta this year. When I got to the finish of every stage I was dead, so that means I did my very best. We did as well as we could as a team, too. My rivals were simply stronger than us,” Chaves says sportingly, and again proud of the way his Orica-Bike Exchange team-mates worked for him during the race while also winning three sprint stages with Jens Keukeleire and Magnus Cort Nielsen and an early hilly stage with Simon Yates. The Orica-Bike Exchange Backstage
Pass videos often reveal the inside story of the team’s performances. The video produced after stage 20 of the Vuelta a España tells how the team planned their attack on Contador, how they overcame fears it might blow up in their faces and how they then executed their strategy as a team, with Chaves finishing everything off with a huge solo attack on the climb to the finish. It is an example of the essence of teamwork in professional cycling and shows why the camaraderie at Orica-Bike Exchange seems to make up for the lack of the huge budgets that some of their WorldTour rivals enjoy.
Chaves has extended his contract with the team until the end of 2019 and team manager Shayne Bannan is gradually recalibrating his team around the Grand Tour talent of Chaves and the Yates brothers. All three could have chased bigger offers and moved to rival teams after their success of 2016 but all three have opted to stay. Considering the team started out with a motley assortment of sprinters and extremely young GC hopes, they have come a long way.
“A journalist once told me that I could not win a Grand Tour because I don’t have a strong team. I said: ‘You’re right, I do not have a strong team but I do have a family.’ That makes the difference and makes up for what we might lack as a team,” Chaves says.
Chaves’s outgoing and upbeat character is markedly different to that
Chaves attacks his rivals in Il Lombardia, where he’ll go on to win the race in a sprint
“It’s exciting to be at Orica- Bike Exchange and I’m excited about the future. We’re all pretty young, so if we can continue to develop and improve together then we’ll slaughter them all!”
of Adam and Simon Yates, who have also shown their Grand Tour potential in 2016 with fourth overall and best young rider at the Tour de France (Adam) and sixth at the Vuelta (Simon). Yet there are no signs of internal rivalry at Orica, even if all would no doubt like to lead the team at the mountainous 2017 Tour de France. Indeed Chaves seems to help the Yates brothers enjoy racing in the spotlight, while he has no doubt picked up on their determination and work ethic.
“It’s true that they’re English while I’m Latino and Colombian; we’re different for sure. But we are also friends and teammates and we’re all intelligent,” Chaves says.
“If you look at stage 20 of the Vuelta, Simon did an incredible job for me by splitting up the peloton and then disrupting the chase. If he didn’t do that he could have finished fifth overall but he sacrificed himself to help me finish on the podium. I’ll never forget that. If one day I need to sacrifice my chances for Simon or Adam, I’ll do it, no problem. And I’ll be happy to do it because I’m sure that they’d do it for me. It’s exciting to be at Orica and I’m excited about the future. Not thinking just to 2017 but further ahead than that. I’m talking about my own career and my own ambitions and also that of the Yates brothers, Jack Haig, Damien Howson, Michael Hepburn and others. We’re all pretty young, so if we can continue to develop and improve together then we’ll slaughter them all!”
Chaves laughs out loud at his own exaggeration and confidence, flashing a pearly white smile.
“Write that,” he insists. “We know we can be an incredible team in the next few years.”
Chaves thanks Simon Yates for his help in Spain