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Vuelta a Espana

Chaves is focused on the Vuelta’s first summit finish

The Colombian star is cautiously sizing up the opening climbs in the first half of the Vuelta as a real test to see if he's fully back at his best

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For a rider who carved a name for himself on Europe’s biggest mountains, Esteban Chaves isn’t daring to look past Wednesday’s first mountaintop finale.

In a Vuelta a España riddled with climbs, the opening summit finish during this year’s edition will be a test in more ways than one for Chaves.

After battling back from a career-threatening bout of Epstein-Barr, the Colombian star is anxiously waiting for the first major tests of this Vuelta to confirm he’s put the illness permanently in the rearview mirror.

“After overcoming the illness I had, I don’t want to look too far ahead,” Chaves said. “Right now everything is going pretty good. I am with the favorites and we’ll see what we can say after tomorrow’s stage.”

That statement reveals a mix of quiet confidence and just how bad things had gotten with for the popular Colombian over the past 12 months or so. Last year, Chaves struggled through the Giro d’Italia and eventually discovered he had been zapped by Epstein-Barr, putting a premature end to his 2018 racing season.

Chaves — who hit a double-podium season in 2016 with second in the Giro and third in the Vuelta — showed signs of his earlier brilliance during this year’s Giro. He won a hard-fought stage in the Dolomites in the third week, a good sign that he was back at his best.

Of course, winning a stage out of a breakaway and fighting for the podium are very different things. Chaves is quietly optimistic he can remain in the GC frame deep into the final week this Vuelta. It all starts Wednesday.

“The first mountain stage is always important, and we all know it’s a very hard climb,” Chaves said. “Perhaps it’s better to be a little bit conservative because it’s a very long Vuelta.”

Chaves enters this Vuelta as an unknown. A fully healthy Chaves would typically be among the pre-race favorites, but so far, even he’s downplaying his chances for overall victory. He needs to get through this first week in solid position before he can safely say he’s turned the page.

The team is showing full confidence that Chaves is back. The Yates brothers stayed clear of the Vuelta, including defending champion Simon Yates, and Chaves starts as the lone GC captain of the powerful Aussie outfit.

So far, Chaves is hitting his markers. Mitchelton-Scott pushed into the top-10 in the opening team time trial, and then he survived the Calpe shootout to finish with the chasing favorites.

After a solid start — he’ll start Wednesday’s fifth stage 13th at 51 seconds back — Chaves doesn’t want to jinx himself.

“Knowing what lies ahead, and after so many grand tours, it’s important to stay calm,” Chaves said. “It’s better to go day by day, and slowly improve the situation and gain confidence than to put too much pressure on yourself right from the start.”

On paper, none of the GC favorites will be losing any sleep about what lies ahead in the three-climb, 170.7km fifth stage. The undulating profile features two early climbs that should see a breakaway attack for the stage, likely to include Belgian stage-hunter Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal). The GC favorites will need to be on alert in the final climb, just under 900m vertical with ramps nearing 10 percent.

If Chaves can survive Wednesday, more challenges lie in wait in what’s a Vuelta that starts harder and gets more challenging by the week. Friday ends atop the even steeper and explosive Mas de la Costa, before tackling the five-climb, 94km explosive stage in Andorra on Sunday in stage 9.

By then, Chaves and all the other GC contenders will know where they stand.

“We’ve done all the hard work, and let’s see how it turns out,” he said. “I want to enjoy this moment. After coming out of the Giro, it’s a very good sign. We know it’s going to be difficult, so we are going to give 100 percent. It’s going to be a big fight. I am happy to be there.”

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