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Chaves rides into Tour debut free of expectations

No one knows what to expect from Esteban Chaves in his upcoming Tour de France debut. Orica-Scott sport director Matt White knows one thing: Chaves will fight any way he can.

The 27-year-old Colombian is coming off a knee injury that sidelined him for four months. After a discreet, but trouble-free return to racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné, White expects Chaves to be a factor. He just doesn’t know how much.

“The big question is how that break is going to affect his performance in July,” White said. “He’s where he needs to be in terms of his recovery. So we’ll see how far he can go. They’ll be no more pressure than what any driven athlete puts on his himself. [Chaves] wants to do something, don’t worry about that. Our guys are really ambitious.”

After riding to podiums in two straight grand tours (second at the 2016 Giro d’Italia and third at the 2016 Vuelta a España), all eyes will be on Chaves. He’s emerged as a consistent player over three weeks in grand tours, a rider capable of winning stages and limiting his losses. If Nairo Quintana doesn’t become Colombia’s first Tour de France winner, Chaves is next in line.

Expectations were high for 2017, with a Tour debut finally in the cards. Yet after making his season debut in Australia, Chaves felt some discomfort in his knee. Doctors said it was a minor tendonitis flare-up.

Not wanting to take chances, the team put Chaves on a slow, steady recovery. After training in Colombia, he returned to racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and made it through the demanding, eight-stage race, finishing 26th overall.

Normally, that would not be an ideal sign with the Tour just weeks away. For Orica-Scott, having Chaves complete the Dauphiné without any complications is victory enough.

“There are absolutely no complications with his knee,” White said in a telephone interview. “We were conservative in his comeback. With knees and backs, you cannot muck around.”

White said the team is confident Chaves will be able to get through his highly anticipated Tour debut. They just don’t know what to expect.

“For sure he’ll be doing stuff in July, we just don’t when and where. This year’s Tour course offers plenty of opportunities for Esteban,” White said. “We’ll see how he can do. If anything, it will set him up for the Vuelta.”

Chaves is central to Orica-Scott’s immediate and long-term future. With the emergence of Chaves alongside Adam and Simon Yates, both 24, White suddenly has three of the hottest GC prospects in his hands.

The Australian team has gradually evolved from sprints and breakaway victories into more of a grand tour-focused squad. While it also boasts one of the most promising sprinters with Caleb Ewan, the team brought on experienced veterans like Ruben Plaza and Roman Kreuziger to provide ballast to their relatively inexperienced GC protégés.

For Chaves, this year’s Tour is just his first taste of the race that likely will be his central focus for the next several years. The team believes he can win grand tours, perhaps even the Tour de France. It all starts in July.

“Look, Esteban hasn’t had the ideal preparation, but that was out of our control, and we cannot go back in time to change it,” White said. “It’s his first Tour de France, so maybe it’s not a bad thing to have less-than-perfect preparation. The expectations aren’t going to be as high. So there’s a bit less pressure there. We honestly don’t know what he’s going to do.”

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