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Esteban Chaves is one of the “OG’s” among today’s generation of Colombian cyclists.
Now 31, “Chavito” won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2011, and helped herald a wave of European-bound Colombian racers who have left a stamp on the international peloton. While the likes of Nairo Quintana and Egan Bernal have won grand tours, coming into 2021, Chaves is looking to rediscover his winning mojo.
“I just keep dreaming, I just keep working, and hope the pieces of the puzzle come together. I know it will come,” Chaves told VeloNews. “I know it is within me.”
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Perhaps more than any other rider part of the “Generación Urán,” Chaves has seen his share of setbacks and challenges.
An early season crash in 2013 at Trofeo Laiguelia threatened to stop his career before it even started. And then following signs of greatness, including a breakout 2016 season that saw him become the first Colombian to win one of cycling’s monuments, he came down with Epstein-Barr over that winter. The effects of the viral infection carried over the next few seasons before he hit salvation with a high-profile stage win at the 2019 Giro d’Italia.
Believing he was back on track, Chaves was then stopped in his tracks again by the coronavirus last spring. After a solid start to the 2020 Tour, Chaves admitted the wheels came off halfway through the race.
“I just fell apart,” Chaves said. “When you fall apart physically, you also fall apart mentally and everything just goes down. We need to make the puzzle work so I do not fall apart again.”
Chaves is still a believer
After so much turmoil with his health, it’s a surprise that Chaves is still smiling. But down deep inside, he’s a believer, and it’s his inner-faith and self-confidence that drives him on.
“I am completely convinced I can be or I am one of the best riders in the world,” Chaves said. “After what happened in 2016, and in the next few years, in 2017 and 2018, that confidence started to disappear.”
For 2021, Chaves hopes to rebuild that self-confidence and express it fully on the pavement of Europe’s highest climbs. Right now, he’s demurring about his grand tour plans. Early season targets include the Volta a Catalunya, the Itzulia Basque Country, and the Ardennes classics.
Despite the departure of Adam Yates, Team BikeExchange is playing it slow with Chaves for the grand tours in 2021. Simon Yates will lead at the Giro d’Italia, and other riders on the team will see increased responsibility at the Tour de France.
“We’re not going to be putting that pressure on his shoulders to ride GC in the grand tours this year,” said sport director Matt White. “He’ll be going to grand tours, but right now for Esteban, it’s about getting back to where he was before. If he’s winning stages and being consistent again, then we can talk about GC.”
Chaves, who has also struggled to keep his weight in line with his bottle-rocket build, is committed to working even harder. If he wants to return to the form that carried him to glory at Il Lombardia and to second overall at the Giro d’Italia and third at the Vuelta a España, all in 2016, he knows he has no choice.
“It’s so professional now in cycling,” Chaves said. “Every team has such a good approach for every rider, so if one little thing doesn’t go right, you drop from position eight to position 18, and then from there to position 80. The differences are so small in cycling now. There is a lot of equilibrium, and if there is one little thing doesn’t go well, it’s ciao — see you next year.”
Despite a few high-profile flameouts and disappointments, Team BikeExchange has stuck by its Colombian star. Chaves joined the WorldTour with the team in 2014, when many teams were skeptical following his horrendous crash early in 2013. The team also stood by him during his lean years by offering a contract extension through 2021.
“The support here is unbelievable,” Chaves said. “After those hard years, they still offered me a contract. They supported me, not just physically, but also mentally. I can find really good friends here. It’s like a family. I am very grateful, and I am happy to be here, and proud to wear all this jersey.”
Keeping the fire burning
Chaves is anxious to return to the winner’s column as soon as possible. It was his dramatic stage victory deep in the Dolomites in the 2019 Giro that continues to keep the fires burning.
“That big stage victory at the Giro in 2019, and what happened in the first days at the Tour and the Vuelta last year, that showed me that the talent is still there, and that confidence is coming back,” Chaves said. “So I just need to continue to believe. I have proven it to myself. I know the talent is in my legs, and the talent is in my body, now I just need to figure out the process, which is not always so easy.”
Chaves — also known as “El Chivo” and the “Smiling Assassin” — is also hoping to get through the 2021 season without disruption. Last year, he showed signs of his former brilliance, only to run out of gas.
“After what happened last season, the most important for myself and for the sport is going to all the races,” he said. “Last year, the sport showed that cycling can go ahead even with this pandemic in the world. That’s one thing I learned last year, let’s just take it day by day.”
Another dream? Making the Colombian Olympic team. With only five spots for Tokyo, and 22 Colombians spread among the 2021 WorldTour, Chaves admits it’s not going to be easy.
If he’s winning again and makes the Olympic selection, it will only serve as proof that he’s back to the rider that hit two grand tour podiums and won a monument in 2016.
It was those successes that put him front and center at today’s generation of Colombian riders, and it’s a place he wants to return to.
“All this Colombian boom started with us. It started with Urán, Quintana and then me,” he said. “Because of all this, everyone started to race their bikes.”
Chaves is proudest of his lasting impact on today’s cycling boom in Colombia. That’s what makes him smile most.
“There was so much exposure in the media, and we showed the way to come to Europe. Cycling now is so big in Colombia,” Chaves said. “I am proud to be part of this generation of riders. We were among the first ones, myself, Rigo, and Nairo. Behind us have come many more. Now Colombian cycling is booming, and we are proud of how big it has become for all the fans.”