Esteban Chaves Provides a Victory for the Human Spirit
After a long period of absence, normality began to show itself again at the Volta a Catalunya last week. On the final climb to the finish of the race’s queen stage, Esteban Chaves took off up the road like a one-man freight train, leaving Richard Carapaz and the Ineos-led final group in his wake. With a few turns of his pedals, Chaves had a 22 second gap and was away. In 2016 the world of cycling was accustomed to seeing Chaves’ beaming smile, radiating from the top step of race podiums worldwide. Yet now the Colombian's face was covered with an uncharacteristic grimace as he pushed on, determined to maintain the advantage he had, as he danced away from his rivals on the way to victory.
The whole cycling world beamed a smile as the likeable Esteban Chaves tasted victory in stage 4 at Volta a Catalunya. © Bettini Photo
Resilience, perseverance and determination are all words you could use to describe Esteban Chaves. The 31-year-old climber has endured a long list of personal struggle in his road to the top of the sport, and his career was very nearly over before it had even got going. A bad crash at the Laigueglia Grand Prix race in 2013 left him severely injured. Chaves was in hospital with a huge list of injuries and with doctors fearing for his life, let alone his return to professional cycling. 'Colombia Es Pasion' by Matt Rendell provides detailed insight into that chapter of Chaves’s career; Rendell reveals that after the crash, Chaves was left with numerous broken bones, severe head trauma, torn nerves and bleeding in the space between the brain and spinal cord. Forty-eight hours were wiped permanently from Esteban’s memory, so much so that he repeatedly called his worried parents at home in Colombia to tell them what had happened, each time forgetting they had already spoken and were aware.
The doctors and physiotherapists told him his career was over but, after an eleven-hour operation, Chaves refused to accept it. Whilst he was on the long road to recovery, Chaves received a call at home from Neil Stephens, sports director for the Australian Orica-GreenEdge team which he instantly assumed was a joke. Yet Stephens was serious and refused to give up on the young climber. In 2014, Chaves signed a three-year deal with Orica-GreenEdge, and a year later he began to continue writing his incredible story of perseverance. Chaves took two stage wins in 2015 at La Vuelta a España and had two stints in the overall leader’s jersey, but it was the following year when things would really start to take off.
In 2016, Chaves was back to full fitness and showing the rest of the WorldTour just why Stephens had placed faith in him. The Colombian could only be beaten by Vincenzo Nibali at the Giro d’Italia, and very nearly tasted overall victory in the Corsa Rosa, had he not been distanced by Nibali on one fateful day. At La Vuelta a España that same year, Chaves continued his impressive form as he climbed to third overall behind Chris Froome and his fellow-countryman, Nairo Quintana, the overall winner that year. Chaves went on to become the first Colombian to win one of cycling’s Monuments as he won the Giro di Lombardia, rounding off one of his best years to date.
The first Colombian to win a Monument, donning his buoyant smile that lights up our TV screens. © Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com
In 2018 it all started to slip away again on what was to become another year of character building for the Colombian. After winning stage 6 of the Giro d’Italia, Chaves would dramatically drop out of contention for overall victory just days later. It became apparent that the Giro would be his last race of that season and after many tests, he was subsequently diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, otherwise known as glandular fever. Esteban was no stranger to overcoming hardship and struggle and took an eight-month break from racing to recover and take stock of his place in the sport.
As the 2019 Giro d’Italia was coming to a close, the riders took on a mountainous stage 19 to San Martino di Castrozza. It was on the final climb to the finish that Chaves would demonstrate that you can’t keep a true champion down. It was just under 3km to go when Chaves would make his mark, climbing out of the saddle to put in a devastating attack, going again and again to form a gap from his breakaway compatriots. It was trademark Chaves, with that same explosively powerful turn of speed on show. Chaves’ attack was so punishing that the other riders in the group had no chance of pulling him back as he tore away with gritted teeth towards victory. “Today, Esteban Chaves has returned, it’s Chaves who is back in business”, said Rob Hatch in his commentary, as Chaves drew a cross and then punched the air in celebration over the line, proving to the rest of the peloton that you should never, ever give up fighting through your darkest moments in life, let alone professional sport.
"Today, Esteban Chaves has returned, it's Chaves who is back in business", exclaimed Rob Hatch, as the Mitchelton-Scott rider roared out a cathartic celebration. © Bettini Photo
After enduring horrific injury, and then suffering from a debilitating illness, Chaves still refused to be knocked down. That victory is one that will always be spoken of amongst cycling fans and the characteristics that Chaves displayed on the roads of Italy in 2019 were evident again on Stage 4 of the 2021 Volta a Catalunya. This was Esteban’s first race of the 2021 season, and one in which he proved his name should be rightfully included alongside the world’s best climbers. Chaves attacked further out than that memorable victory in the Giro, this time going with 7.2km still to race. That was to be no deterrent to the Colombian. Chaves knew the final climb well, given that his European base during the season is in Andorra, and he knew the exact moment to attack. With pain etched across his face, Chaves attacked with the ferocity reminiscent of the 2019 Giro, and then pushed on to the finish to claim a memorable solo win. It is worth acknowledging that this was straight after the effervescent climber had finished second just the day before on another summit finish.
Enric Mas whittled down the lead of Chaves to 8 seconds with just 3.6km to go, but the Colombian kicked once more to propel himself to victory alone. © Bettini Photo
In a world that has been through so much trauma over the last year, this win for Esteban Chaves was not just a win for one of the good guys in cycling, it was a win for the world and a testament to the human spirit in the face of adversity. Chaves is living proof of human resilience and never giving up, no matter what. Starting the current season in this form could be signs of his best season yet being about to unfold.