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Vuelta a Espana

Chaves growing by the day in Vuelta leader’s jersey

The 5-foot-5, sub-120-pound Orica-GreenEdge rider has been the race leader since stage 2.

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Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) is a little man with a big engine, and an even bigger smile, who continues to grow by the day in the Vuelta a España leader’s jersey.

At 5-foot-5 and under 120 pounds, Vuelta organizers are having a hard time finding a red jersey that properly fits his birdlike frame for the post-stage podium ceremony, but five days into the Spanish grand tour, it’s becoming clear Chaves is having no problem growing into the role as team leader.

“I’m not nervous, I’m scared,” Chaves said with a laugh. “It’s a really big responsibility [to lead], but it’s part of the game. It’s beautiful.”

Chaves finally delivered on expectations since winning the 2011 Tour de l’Avenir with his stage victory in stage 2 to capture his first grand tour win as well as the Vuelta leader’s jersey. Since then, he’s been growing by the day.

“The idea is to believe in it,” Chaves said after defending red in Tuesday’s explosive uphill finale. “It’s not by chance that I have the leader’s jersey for three days. You have to believe in yourself, have both feet on the ground, and your head in the right place.”

Chaves will likely get through Wednesday’s sprint-friendly stage and could defend in Thursday’s hilltop finish at Cazorla to carry the jersey into the Sierra Nevada for Friday’s first major mountaintop finish at Alto de Capilleira in stage 7. Everything after that would be a bonus.

No matter what happens the next few days, this Vuelta has been an important step in Chaves’ development as well as confirmation of Orica’s bet on developing younger GC talent rather than paying big bucks for an established grand tour leader.

Speaking to VeloNews earlier this season, sport director Matt White said Chaves and the Yates brothers will be the team’s leaders for the future.

“We would rather build these young guys from inside our structure, and guide them along rather than just hire a more veteran leader,” White said. “If you bring in a big GC leader, you have to change a lot of things within the team. And we’re good at developing talent. We’re expecting these guys to step up the next few years.”

Orica skipped on signing established leaders, such as Richie Porte (who moves from Sky to BMC Racing for 2016), in favor of developing its own leaders from within. Not only is it cheaper, but it also allows the riders to develop into GC leaders without too much pressure. And the fact that Chaves is Colombian and the Yates brothers are British gives them extra breathing room on the Australia-based Orica franchise.

The future is already here for Orica, which puts its early focus on sprints, one-day classics, and time trials since entering the peloton in 2012. Chaves and the Yates brothers, 22, are already delivering on their early promise. Adam Yates won the Tour of Turkey in 2014 and the Clásica San Sebastían in August, while Simon finished fifth this season in both the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) and the Critérium du Dauphiné, arguably two of the hardest one-week stage races on the UCI WorldTour calendar.

For Chaves, whose earlier attempts at grand tours didn’t create many waves (41st in the 2014 Vuelta, 55th in the 2015 Giro d’Italia), the first week of the Vuelta marks a clear line in the tarmac.

“To win my first grand tour stage, and take the leader’s jersey, is a big moment,” Chaves said. “From here moving forward, my career will be different.”

The spritely climber hails from Bogotá and is part of a new generation of Colombian “escarabajos” who are sweeping the European peloton. He won Avenir just a year after Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and while he hasn’t had quite the same professional trajectory as his more successful compatriot, he’s confirmed his promise during this Vuelta.

During his rookie season in 2012 with Colombia-Coldeportes, he won the decisive climbing stage at Lagunas de Neila at the Vuelta a Burgos ahead of compatriot Sergio Henao (Sky) and a fleet of established European pros.

In 2013, his progress was cut short when he suffered a devastating crash at the season-opener at the Trofeo Laigueglia in February in Italy, breaking his right collarbone and complicated fractures to his left arm. Chaves underwent surgery and a season-long rehab that put his career in danger.

Orica gave him a lifeline in 2014, when he bounced back with stage victories at the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse, the latter atop Verbier ahead of such riders as Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing).

The big test for Chaves will be going the distance during this Vuelta, and fighting for a strong GC position when the race concludes in Madrid on September 13.

Orica is hoping to keep its protégé in red for a few more days, and then race its own race going into the truly decisive mountain stages.

“We are not looking too far ahead, because every stage presents a different challenge,” Orica sport director Neil Stephens said. “Each day Esteban is in the leader’s jersey gives him tremendous experiences that will pay off in the future. If he can finish in the top 10, that would be something against this top field in this Vuelta.”

Chaves is already impressing everyone with his grace under fire and his high-wattage podium smile. Now if they can just find a red jersey that fits him properly.