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Few people would have been unhappy to see Esteban Chaves take victory at Porte Ainé in the Volta a Catalunya. The win was his first in two years—his last coming at the 2019 Giro d’Italia—and came off the back of a strong ride to second behind Adam Yates on Vallter 2000.
It was a gritty victory as he held on out front with the slimmest of margins while the group behind clawed him back. The stage was something of an allegory for Chaves’ career: pushing on when the odds are stacked against him. It also demonstrated what is possible when you have a team that believes in you, even when things get tough.
“I had nothing to lose and everything to win,” Chaves said after crossing the line. “I showed myself I can do it and I just need to keep working, keep believing and keep dreaming.”
️Aquest han sigut els millors moments de l’Etapa 4, amb la victòria d’Esteban Chaves a @SkiPallars
— Volta a Catalunya (@VoltaCatalunya) March 25, 2021
Chaves is a popular character in the peloton and with fans. His relentlessly smiling demeanor endears him to people, as does his aggressive racing style and inability to give up despite being knocked down. Through the smiles, it can be easy to forget the challenges Chaves has had to face throughout his career.
I first met Chaves at the 2014 Tour de Langkawi, his first stage race for the Orica-GreenEdge team. That he had even made the step up to WouldTour level was a testament to the belief the Australian squad has continued to show in him to this day, and Chaves’ own mental resilience.
Prior to signing for the team, the Colombian suffered a horrific crash at the Trofeo Laigueglia in February 2013. It left him with a shopping list of injuries that could have easily finished his career. He would need several surgeries and extensive physical therapy to get his full mobility back. Returning to the peloton would also be a huge mental battle for him as he struggled with the lasting impact of having a massive crash.
Given the opportunity, Chaves quickly demonstrated his talents against the best stage racers in the world and repaid the faith shown by Orica-GreenEdge. His star continued to rise with podium finishes at the 2016 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.
It looked like it would only be a matter of time before he took a grand tour title when he went into the 2017 season. Chaves made a strong start to the year in Australia but then found himself sidelined for four months with a knee injury. His form was not perfect but seemed to be approaching the right direction as he headed into his debut Tour de France.
Just two days into the race he learned that his close friend and physio Diana Casas, who had aided his recovery following his 2013 crash, had died in a cycling accident. The news, understandably, had a huge impact on him. He would ride to Paris, but the general classification was never within his reach. An 11th place at the subsequent Vuelta a Espana seemed like a signal he was moving in the right direction but a crash at Il Lombardia, which left him with a fractured shoulder blade, had other ideas.
Not deterred by this latest setback, Chaves duly worked his way back to full fitness. Once again, he appeared to be on the right track with a stage victory at the 2018 Giro d’Italia. However, something was waiting around the corner to knock him off course yet again. His sudden drop in form just a few days later left Chaves and his team scratching their heads and it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus and chronic sinusitis in August later that year it became clear what was wrong.
A hugely emotional stage win at the 2019 Giro d’Italia showed Chaves still had plenty of pedigree but his road to recovery has been slow and steady since. He has been picking up solid results as he goes and his form over three weeks has been improving. Epstein-Barr is a difficult illness to come back from and the path back to full fitness can be far from linear, just ask Mark Cavendish. But Chaves appears to have gotten through the worst of it.
Esteban Chaves takes an emotional win on stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia. His victory marks a return to form after struggling with ill health last year. https://t.co/6u0JP2mHkG pic.twitter.com/cW0KHhMFKg
— VeloNews (@velonews) May 31, 2019
It is too early to tell just what Chaves will be capable of just four days into his season, but his win may be an inkling that we will see him at the pointy end of proceedings much more. After the five years that he has endured, nobody would begrudge him a little more success. At just 31, there is also still time for him to achieve his dream of winning a grand tour.