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’