Esteban Chaves makes his highly anticipated Tour de France debut as the cycling equivalent of a “known unknown” this year.
After finishing on the podium in his past two grand tours (second in the 2016 Giro d’Italia and third in the 2016 Vuelta a España), everyone knows the Orica-Scott climber has the chops to go the grand-tour distance. What’s unknown is how he will handle his Tour debut following a spring-long forced rest for tendonitis in his left knee.
“The expectations have changed after my complicated preparation,” Chaves said in a telephone interview. “I always have high ambitions for any race I start. I confront my first Tour with maximum ambitions, but with realistic goals.”
That’s Chaves’s way of saying he has no idea what to expect.
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The 27-year-old will start his first Tour with among the fewest race days among the favorites. After opening his season in Australia in January, Chaves was forced off the bike for several weeks to give his left knee time to safely recover from what could have been something much more serious.
After returning to racing at the challenging Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month and going through the paces of intense training without any pain or discomfort, all indications are that Chaves will be able to race at a top level. The big question will be if he has enough training in his legs to seriously challenge for the final podium.
“My first objective is to know the race,” Chaves said. “Everyone talks about the stress, the speed, the pressure, so I want to get comfortable.”
Chaves continued, “I want to take it stage by stage and find my rhythm. Of course, I will look for opportunities when they present themselves. What that means, we do not know.”
Even being at the start line next month in Düsseldorf will be a bit of a victory for Chaves and the Orica-Scott organization.
“After I came home from Australia, I started to feel some discomfort in my left knee,” he said. “It was nothing serious, but it was a setback right in the middle of the season. We had to handle it the right way.”
That meant going slow. Orica-Scott sport director Matt White said the team threw Chaves’s racing schedule out the window, noting, “with backs and knees, you cannot muck around.”
Chaves underwent several weeks of rehab work off the bike, hitting the gym and undergoing physiotherapy treatments. The plan worked. After he returned to training and then racing at the Dauphiné, Chaves felt no hint of pain.
“I was never under any pressure. On this team, it is a word that doesn’t exist,” Chaves said. “The most important thing is that I am back without any bother. We did everything the right way so it’s not a problem in the future.”
For Chaves, the Dauphiné marked the beginning of what will be his “French future.” It was his first major race on French roads. He’s never raced Paris-Nice or the Tour. That’s all about to change in a hurry.
“It’s a bit of a victory for any race to start his first Tour,” Chaves said. “The Tour de France is the biggest, most important race in Colombia. It captures the imagination of the entire nation.”
Chaves said he remembers growing up as an aspiring cyclist watching the big Colombian riders in the 1990s and 2000s. When one journalist asked him if Luís Herrera and Fabio Parra were his big heroes, he laughed, saying, “that was a bit too early for me.”
“I remember watching Victor Hugo Peña, the first and only Colombian to have the yellow jersey,” he said. “Riders like Santiago Botero, Felix Cardenas, Ivan Parra, those are the riders that I was following.”
For this Tour, Chaves will share team leadership with Simon Yates, another young prospect with a bright future. Both will ride without pressure, but with a lot of ambition. A stage victory, a spell in a jersey, or a top-10 finish will be the immediate goals.
While Nairo Quintana holds the monopoly on the hearts and minds of Colombian fans, Chaves is emerging as one of the most popular riders among today’s new generation of stars. His smiling demeanor and intense ambition underscore his appeal across Colombian and cycling fans everywhere. The Australians have adopted him as one of their own, and he’s embraced them as well.
“I almost now feel half-Australian,” Chaves said. “The team has supported me 100 percent through everything. I want to pay them back with big results.”
The future? For Chaves, who also won the Giro di Lombardia last fall, that means one thing: “I want to become a ‘Tour man,’ (un hombre del Tour).”
“I like three-week grand tours. I’ve shown that I can handle racing at the grand tour level,” he said. “To win the Tour someday? Why not? That’s been my dream ever since I was a child.”
This Tour will mark the next step in Chaves’s evolution to confirm his grand tour potential. He’s also expected to race the Vuelta a España this fall and wants to develop into a rider like Alejandro Valverde, who races most of the major dates from spring until the fall.
“It’s a dream come true to be racing the Tour,” he continued. “I have realistic goals. I am sure I will feel a little bit nervous, OK, we are all human. But I won’t have fear. Respect, yes, but no fear.”