The young Colombian climber lost six months to Epstein-Barr, but now team officials say he's ready to return to the front of the GC field.

Mitchelton-Scott management is bullish that Esteban Chaves will return to his grand tour podium-challenging ways in 2019.

The 28-year-old climber went from finishing on two grand tour podiums in 2016 to flaming out of contention at the 2018 Giro d’Italia. After a six-month stop to recover from Epstein-Barr, Chaves confirmed his return to the peloton with a season debut slated at the Vuelta a la Valenciana in Spain in early February.

Mitchelton-Scott’s sport director Matt White said the team is quietly confident Chaves is fully recovered and will soon regain his spot as a grand tour candidate in the coming season.

“We’re hoping that be the middle or end of [2019] he’ll be even better than he was in 2016,” White said. “That’s a viable target.”

The Colombian hasn’t raced since the end of the Giro in May when he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr, a debilitating virus that can wipe out a cyclist’s career if it’s misdiagnosed or if a return to competition is rushed. Other riders, such as former Sky rider Beñat Intxausti and top sprinter Mark Cavendish, have struggled to regain their former status after bouts with the virus.

Chaves enjoyed a breakout season in 2016, finishing second in the Giro d’Italia and third at the Vuelta a España before barnstorming to victory at the Giro di Lombardia. After emerging as a grand tour contender, a string of injuries and other setbacks hampered his progress in 2017, but it wasn’t until Chaves flamed out of the 2018 Giro that doctors figured out what was up.

After Chaves limped into Rome a distant 72nd despite winning a mountain stage and defending second place on GC into the second week, the team put Chaves through a battery of tests and doctors diagnosed the culprit as Epstein-Barr.

Looking back, White surmises that Chaves might have had the virus as early as 2017 when a knee injury and other illnesses kept them from detecting the underlying issue.

“The most important thing now is that we know what was the problem,” White said in a telephone interview. “Before we couldn’t put our finger on it. He’d be flying for 10 days and then the wheels would fly off. We knew something was wrong.”

To recover, Chaves spent two months completely off the bike. That was followed by a steady two-month transition to slowly build up his mileage. Doctors continue to monitor his immune system, but indications are that Chaves has put the setback behind him.

Team officials confirmed Monday that Chaves will return to Europe early in 2019 and make his debut at Valenciana in Spain. Though final calendars have yet to be determined, it’s likely Chaves will race the Giro in May.

“He will approach the season like any other,” White continued. “His training now is business as usual and there are no restrictions at the moment. Fingers crossed that everything will go as planned and he can start off the season in February with a bang.”

Having a fully healthy Chaves, who also won the Giro di Lombardia in his breakout 2016 season, would make Mitchelton-Scott one of the most formidable grand tour teams in the peloton.

Simon Yates, already a confirmed grand tour winner at the Vuelta a España, and his twin brother Adam give the Aussie outfit one of the deepest multi-pronged GC attacks in the peloton. With the departure of Caleb Ewan, the team’s entire resources are now focused on the GC. Only Team Sky and Movistar can bring as many legitimate GC contenders to the grand tours.

White will huddle with Mitchelton-Scott directors and riders at an upcoming team camp to finalize plans for 2019. Simon Yates has already said he has “unfinished business” with the Giro while brother Adam will likely headline the team’s Tour de France effort. While not confirmed, it’s also likely that Simon Yates would return to the Vuelta to defend his title, perhaps with Chaves and his brother Adam as support.

With that kind of firepower, Mitchelton-Scott will be a GC contender in any grand tour it starts. White is hoping Chaves will be back to his smiling ways in 2019.