Happy Days

Cyclist - - Contents - Words KIERAN PENDER Pho­tog­ra­phy CON CHRONIS

A dra­matic crash in 2013 nearly ended his ca­reer, but Colom­bian Este­ban Chaves, and his fa­mous smile, are made of sterner stuff than most

Este­ban Chaves is one of the hap­pi­est riders in the pro­fes­sional pelo­ton. But be­neath that ever-present smile is a fierce de­ter­mi­na­tion fu­elled by a crash that would have ended the ca­reers of most ath­letes. Cy­clist meets Mitchel­ton-scott’s Colom­bian star as he takes aim at the il­lus­tri­ous Giro d’italia pink jer­sey

It is a good day to be in­ter­view­ing Este­ban Chaves. Saun­ter­ing into the din­ing hall of a bou­tique ho­tel in re­gional Aus­tralia, Chaves looks re­laxed with barely a hint of fa­tigue. He flashes a smile at team­mates and other riders, who con­grat­u­late him on his lat­est suc­cess.

The day be­fore, Chaves had at­tacked solo at the base of a pun­ish­ing 20km climb dur­ing the Her­ald Sun Tour. In his first stage race back on the road af­ter a Septem­ber crash cur­tailed his 2017 cam­paign, the Colom­bian was un­stop­pable. Giv­ing the two-fin­gered peace sign as he rolled across the moun­tain fin­ish, Chaves looked ec­static with his start to a po­ten­tially defin­ing World­tour sea­son.

The 28-year-old’s smile is fa­mous. He is softly spo­ken and diminu­tive – he stands at just 5’ 5” and weighs 54kg – but Chaves’s pos­i­tiv­ity makes him con­spic­u­ous.

‘Even when things don’t go his way, when he might be up­set, he is still so up­beat,’ ex­plains Mitchel­tonS­cott col­league and Aus­tralian na­tional cham­pion Alex Ed­mond­son. ‘He is the nicest per­son I have ever met – I am lost for words de­scrib­ing him.’

These may sound like cus­tom­ary plat­i­tudes from a team­mate, but the sen­ti­ment is echoed through­out the pelo­ton and by me­chan­ics, soigneurs and sports di­rec­tors. In the cut-throat at­mos­phere of World­tour cy­cling, Chaves’s en­dur­ing cheer­ful­ness is atyp­i­cal.

But the Colom­bian is more than cy­cling’s Mr Nice Guy. Chaves – ‘Chav­ito’ to the South Amer­i­cans, ‘Aussie Este­ban’ or ‘the Colom­bian Kan­ga­roo’ to his Aus­tralian ad­mir­ers – has a steely side. Mo­ti­vated by a crash that al­most ended his ca­reer, Chaves has an in­tense de­ter­mi­na­tion to win. And, af­ter a suc­cess­ful start to the sea­son, he now has his sights set firmly on suc­cess at the Giro d’italia.

‘Can we buy this bike?’

‘Ev­ery­thing comes from my dad,’ Chaves be­gins in flu­ent English. ‘Dad lived dur­ing the mo­ment when cy­cling in Colom­bia went through a boom. He loved it.’

Chaves’s fa­ther, Jairo, wit­nessed the ar­rival of Colom­bian cy­cling on the world stage in the 1980s and the cre­ation of he­roes in­clud­ing Luis ‘Lu­cho’ Her­rera. In 1984, Her­rera stunned French crowds by win­ning the Alpe d’huez stage of the Tour de France. He fol­lowed that stun­ning vic­tory by tak­ing the moun­tain clas­si­fi­ca­tion at the Tour in 1985 and 1987. Then, coun­try­man Fabio Parra placed se­cond at the Vuelta in 1989, as Colom­bian cy­cling ex­ploded. Pro­fes­sional riders from the South Amer­i­can na­tion were nick­named es­caraba­jos (bee­tles), for their ex­tra­or­di­nary climb­ing abil­ity.

These im­pres­sive fig­ures had a real im­pact on Jairo and he was keen to share his bur­geon­ing love of cy­cling – in Colom­bia and be­yond – with his son Este­ban, who was born in 1990. ‘I re­mem­ber grow­ing up with wheels,’ says Chaves ju­nior. ‘Watch­ing the Tour, watch­ing the Giro, my dad was a re­ally big fan – he wanted me to love the sport.’

Love it he did, but as a spec­ta­tor. Sur­pris­ingly, it was not un­til his teenage years that Chaves was en­ticed onto a bike. ‘I en­joyed watch­ing it, but I had never tried the sport,’ he re­mem­bers. ‘I was a run­ner – mid­dle dis­tance – and I went very well. I was in a club, and one year we be­gan the sea­son with a duathlon – 5km of run­ning and 20km on the bike. We rented a bike, and I liked this sen­sa­tion. I found it bet­ter than run­ning.’

On the way home from the race, Chaves made a re­quest that would change the course of his life.

‘I said to my dad, “Can we buy this bike?”. That is how ev­ery­thing started, at 14 years of age.’

Chaves was well and truly bit­ten by the cy­cling bug. He joined a bike club and then be­gan rac­ing lo­cally, na­tion­ally and, fi­nally, in­ter­na­tion­ally dur­ing these for­ma­tive years. ‘I grew up, step by step,’ he says.

In 2009, Chaves – still just 19 – spent his first sea­son rac­ing in Europe. ‘I was in the na­tional team,’ he ex­plains, ‘with Nairo Quin­tana, Dar­win Ata­puma, Jar­lin­son Pan­tano, Ser­gio He­nao – it was a re­ally strong team. We were just kids, com­ing to Europe for the first time. We rented cars and trav­elled around Europe like mates. We slept wher­ever on the au­tostrade [mo­tor­ways] and had fun – it was like a fam­ily.’

Two years later, Chaves’s cy­cling ca­reer be­gan to take off. He won the Tour de l’avenir, adding his name to an im­pres­sive hon­our roll that in­cludes the likes of mul­ti­ple Tour win­ners Miguel In­durain and Greg Le­mond. A pro­fes­sional con­tract would soon fol­low with the newly formed Colom­bia-cold­e­portes.

‘It be­came more se­ri­ous, but it was still the same group – still one big fam­ily. We had a base in Italy, I learnt an­other lan­guage, had a proper con­tract, paid in­surance – sud­denly I was an adult!’ A promis­ing fu­ture seemed to beckon for the then 22-year-old.

‘This is not a time for jokes’

Chaves’s world came crash­ing down on Sun­day 17th Fe­bru­ary 2013. At the Tro­feo Laigueglia in Lig­uria, Italy, Chaves was 130km into the one-day race when he crashed on a cor­ner and wrapped him­self around a road­side post. The young star was rushed to hos­pi­tal, where it be­came clear that the Colom­bian had suf­fered mul­ti­ple frac­tures, brain trauma and nerve dam­age.

‘IRE­MEM­BER GROW­ING UP WITH WHEELS... WATCH­ING THE TOUR, THE GIRO’

Chaves has no me­mory of the crash it­self, or of the days that im­me­di­ately fol­lowed it. He re­mem­bers com­ing round to con­scious­ness and call­ing his fa­ther back in Bo­gota, think­ing it was still Sun­day and that they had not yet spo­ken. It was ac­tu­ally Tues­day, and Chaves had al­ready made the same call to his fa­ther five times.

Things were not look­ing good. ‘The doc­tors ex­plained to me that when some­thing re­ally bad hap­pens to the body, the brain just dis­con­nects,’ he says. ‘I don’t re­mem­ber the crash, the pain, the days in be­tween.’

At first, Chaves felt for­tu­nate just to be alive and on the mend. He was re­leased from hos­pi­tal and spent some time re­cu­per­at­ing with a fam­ily in Italy. ‘I am re­ally lucky in life be­cause ev­ery­where I go, I have found peo­ple to look af­ter me,’ he says. ‘The fam­ily took me into their home, they gave me their room to sleep in, they woke me when I needed to take pills.’ But, af­ter re­turn­ing to Colom­bia, the re­al­ity of his sit­u­a­tion be­gan to sink in. Doc­tors on both con­ti­nents told him to col­lect the in­surance pay­out – his rid­ing ca­reer, they ad­vised, was over.

‘When you have a bro­ken bone or lig­a­ment, the first thing you think is, “How long will it take to re­cover?”’ Chaves muses. ‘But I hurt my nerves. I asked the doc­tors how long it would take to re­cover. They said, “Look, Este­ban, maybe it will never re­cover. The worst thing you can do is Google.” So of course I went on Google and in 90% of cases of nerve dam­age, it never comes back.’

De­spite re­ceiv­ing some ex­ten­sive ther­apy, Chaves could barely move his right arm at all. He be­gan to sink into de­pres­sion and only the com­pany of his younger brother Brayan (also a cy­clist , who now rides for Mitchel­tonS­cott’s de­vel­op­ment team) kept him smil­ing. ‘He stayed with me – we would be silly, and play FIFA on the Xbox.’

Then, one day, the young Colom­bian re­ceived an un­ex­pected phone call that would change the course of his seem­ingly dev­as­tated cy­cling ca­reer.

‘I couldn’t be­lieve it,’ Chaves re­calls. ‘He called me in per­fect Span­ish, say­ing it was Neil Stephens from Mitchel­ton-scott [at that time Orica-greenedge]. I said, “Look, man, I am go­ing through a se­ri­ous thing in my life now, this is not a time for jokes.” I was cer­tain he wasn’t from Mitchel­ton-scott be­cause of his Span­ish. Neil said, “No, wait, it’s real.”’

Stephens, an Aus­tralian sports director, hap­pens to live in Spain and speaks im­pres­sively flu­ent Span­ish. This was no joke, Stephens had an of­fer to make. And it was ev­ery­thing Chaves needed. ‘Mitchel­ton-scott were the light at the end of the tun­nel,’ Chaves con­tin­ues. ‘They gave me the mo­ti­va­tion to fight and come back.’

Among the 10 doc­tors he con­sulted, only one of them thought that the nerve trans­plant surgery that was be­ing sug­gested might give the Colom­bian a chance to race again. But buoyed by Stephens’s sup­port, Chaves knew what he wanted to do. No risk was too big in the pur­suit of his cy­cling as­pi­ra­tions. ‘I was re­ally mo­ti­vated to have the surgery and take the risk,’ he says. ‘Sud­denly I was just one step away from my dream.’

‘What were we go­ing to lose?’

If it was up to Mitchel­ton-scott’s re­cently re­tired med­i­cal director, Dr Peter Barnes, the team might never have signed Chaves. Sev­eral months af­ter that phone call, the team in­vited their po­ten­tial re­cruit to meet in Europe.

‘We were hop­ing he would be bet­ter than he was,’ re­calls Stephens. ‘He “cheated” when he shook my hand, he “cheated” when he got out of the seat. We knew he wanted us to be­lieve his arm was bet­ter than it was.’

Chaves has sim­i­lar mem­o­ries of the en­counter. ‘I had a fish arm – I had to use my left hand to put my right hand on the han­dle­bar,’ he says. But Chaves was not about to let this op­por­tu­nity of a life­time slip away from him with­out a fight. ‘The team were pre­par­ing for the Worlds, swap­ping on and off do­ing big ef­forts. They said I could stay be­hind, but I had not rid­den for seven months – this was my chance. I think they saw that and thought, “Why not?”’

Stephens and team general manager Shayne Ban­nan were im­pressed. ‘The doc­tor said, “We re­ally shouldn’t sign him”,’ says Stephens. ‘But we said, “Let’s just do it.” It was a slightly ir­re­spon­si­ble move. What were we go­ing to lose? We went with hope rather than knowl­edge.’ It was a big risk for the team, but they were all in.

Ban­nan, a three-decade vet­eran of the cy­cling in­dus­try, is more em­phatic about the emo­tions of that mo­ment. ‘How can you have some­one with that smile look at you and then not sign him?’ he laughs. ‘We were al­ways go­ing to sign him. But it was a gam­ble.’

The bet paid off ten­fold. Af­ter a slow re­turn from his in­jury, Chaves won a stage at the 2014 Tour of Cal­i­for­nia. Fifth over­all at the Vuelta, and the yel­low jer­sey at the Abu Dhabi Tour in 2015, eas­ily demon­strated his re­vived po­ten­tial. But he went on to do even bet­ter. Chaves fin­ished on the podium at both the Giro and Vuelta in 2016. He had held the Giro pink jer­sey with two stages re­main­ing, but ul­ti­mately lost the over­all lead to Vin­cenzo Nibali.

‘That was a big mo­ment for me,’ he says. ‘To fin­ish se­cond was re­ally spe­cial. It was hard go­ing to bed af­ter Stage 19 with the pink jer­sey on my shoul­ders, but with the Shark lurk­ing 40 sec­onds be­hind. That was pres­sure, but it was beau­ti­ful – my first Grand Tour podium, and my par­ents were there to see it.’

‘Noth­ing im­por­tant comes easy’

At the 2017 Tour de France, Chaves pre­sented a bracelet to team­mates and Mitchel­ton-scott staff, en­graved with the words ‘dreams come true’. For Chaves, this was a child­hood dream – one that had, at times, felt im­pos­si­ble.

The Tour didn’t go to plan – an in­jury-ham­pered lead-in and the death of a close friend in the open­ing week meant he barely fea­tured in the general clas­si­fi­ca­tion. But, in 2018, Chaves is de­ter­mined to claim his – and Mitchel­tonS­cott’s – first ever Grand Tour win. ‘We are tar­get­ing the Giro,’ he says. ‘I have had a good off-sea­son and now I start the se­cond phase with early rac­ing. Paris-nice, Catalunya and then we will have a train­ing camp to fix what we need to fix and ar­rive in the best con­di­tion at the Giro.’

Pressed on his prospects, Chaves is non-com­mit­tal. ‘It is hard when you guys ask if we will win,’ he says. ‘It is still months away, and on the first stage you could punc­ture – any­thing could hap­pen. We will try our best, ar­rive in the best con­di­tion, and see what hap­pens.’

While he is pub­licly non­cha­lant, those who know Chaves sug­gest his in­ner fire burns bright. ‘Este­ban is very de­ter­mined,’ says Ban­nan. ‘He’s not just the lovely, cud­dly char­ac­ter you might think he is. Be­hind that smile is a guy who has sac­ri­ficed a lot and has high ex­pec­ta­tions.’

Asked whether Chaves has the abil­ity to win a Grand Tour, sports director Stephens is forth­right: ‘Yes.’

Ei­ther way, Chaves will be smil­ing. ‘I smile be­cause I en­joy what I do,’ he says. ‘I came pretty close to never be­ing able to do this again. Who knows what I would have done in­stead? Maybe be a car­pen­ter with my dad – he’s a car­pen­ter. That is not a bad ca­reer, but I can’t travel around the world and learn other lan­guages.

‘So I smile be­cause I am liv­ing my dream,’ Chaves says. ‘One day you are in one part of the world, the next month you are in an­other. You eat paella, you eat pasta, you eat smashed av­o­cado. This is spe­cial. We need to en­joy this all the time, be­cause you never know what might hap­pen.’

As the in­ter­view con­cludes, and he pre­pares for the fi­nal stage of the Her­ald Sun Tour, a con­tem­pla­tive look ap­pears.

‘Noth­ing im­por­tant comes easy,’ says Chaves. ‘You need to work hard al­ways. I work hard be­cause this is my dream, and dreams do come true.’ Kieran Pender is a cy­cling jour­nal­ist – a job that is also liv­ing the dream.

‘NOTH­ING IM­POR­TANT COMES EASY ...I WORK HARD BE­CAUSE THIS ISMY DREAM’

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