May 28, 2016 (Italy) – I’ll take this opportunity to share some experiences of riding this year’s Giro d’Italia, as well as the background of, in my mind, the coolest Grand Tour rider. His name is Esteban Chaves. On the outside, he is a smiley little teenager, and on the inside, he is one of the toughest, most centred and grounded people I know. His ability to cope with the stress and rigours of a Grand Tour are like nothing I’ve seen before. His outlook on life is so different than that of your average WorldTour bike racer. Family and friends are what’s most important to him, and his understanding that this is just bike racing is what makes him stand out from the rest. He is truly enjoying the moment.
I started this year’s Giro in a bit of a negative spot. I was truly questioning my ability to compete in another Grand Tour and if I was physically and mentally capable. Mental being the big question. It is amazing what the body can put up with, but when the brain goes, everything else follows. It didn’t help that I got a virus the day before the Opening Prologue. Lying in bed with the shivers and barely able to get up, you start to wonder how it will be possible to race 200km stages in the heat of the coming days. While we raced over the windy Holland roads, my duties for the day to look after Esteban, I started noticing subtle things. I realized quickly that he was in the form of his life.
Everything was easy for him, even in the crosswind sections where teams would try to blow things apart. He was just ticking along. When you have a guy who can win a Grand Tour, your job becomes very different than our usual tactic of focusing on a few key stage wins. From Kilometre Zero, you are switched on and constantly working to stay in the sweet spot in the peloton. With some leaders, this can be a very tiring job, but with Esteban, I couldn’t ask for any better. In every sketchy moment, he was right there, putting his faith in me. When someone gives you that faith, you gain extra strength from it. The responsibility is on you and you can really surprise your- self how much harder you can push.
From those windy days in Holland, Esteban continued to blow our minds every day, and we all began to realize what was possible as we headed into the hilly terrain of Italy. He continued his trajectory with a stage win on one of the hardest stages of the Tour, and on Stage 19, he took the Pink jersey. I remember listening so intently to the radio as it crackled in my ear – I was way out of radio range as I crept up the final climbs of the day in the grupetto. I wasn’t surprised. I’d seen the quality of this young fella, and I look forward to watching him in the coming years.
I still remember the first time I met Esteban. I was meeting up with our Team Time Trial crew at our Girona service course. For cyclists, they’re a big bunch of guys. All 80 kilo and 6 feet plus. As I rolled in, there was a little kid in Team Colombia kit standing around. I was told by the doctor that he (Esteban) would be joining us for the ride. I thought, “Hmm, that’s interesting. Curious to know how they reckoned this guy was going to hang onto six blokes riding 60k an hour plus in aero positions, but we’ll see.” The team was taking a look at Esteban. He had just recovered from a very serious shoulder injury where many different doctors told him he would never ride Professionally again. The team was interested in Esteban and was willing to take a risk. First though it needed to be determined that he could ride a bike.
This is where I learned just how tough Esteban is. With no riding experience in the previous six months, he suffered like you cannot believe to keep pace with us. We were all riding TT bikes with aero wheels and helmets, and here’s Esteban weighing in at 50 kilos on a normal road bike with 32-spoke wheels. He finished every effort with us and you could see the determination in his eyes.
Esteban’s view on life is unique and refreshing. To him, each day is a gift – that’s why he smiles so much. When you understand his story, you realize why this is true. So many days he would tell me how lucky he is to be racing his bike. I remember one stage where we went through a town in Northern Italy and he told me that this was where one doctor told him he would never race again. And here he was wearing the Pink jersey in the Giro d’Italia!!! I could feel the emotion pouring out of him.
It’s things such as this that allow him to appreciate life and not get too carried away with the stresses of a Grand Tour. He knows each day is special for him, and he genuinely appreciates it. Many people know this, but few are able to put it into practise, and very few practise it in this extreme environment. Coming into Stage 20, the team had an energy I’ve never felt before. We were buzzing. We were going to die thousands of deaths to stay with our leader, our friend, and hope he would have the energy to take on his rivals in the final. Luck was not on his side and he lost the jersey to an older, more experienced rival. This did not shake him or change the way he conducted himself. He was proud of his work and the outcome was secondary. This, for me, is the behaviour of a true champion. You do the hard yards and eventually the results will come.
Esteban’s close family flew from Colombia for the final two stages. His family was so genuine and full of love that it spread over the team in waves. On the Sunday night after the race, we spent the evening at a restaurant re-telling stories with his family. It was a super-emotional time, and many of us were in tears. This will be a Giro I will never forget, and not because of the final result. Because of the collective work of my teammates and my friends, we all grew a little more and learned a lot about ourselves. This is why I still do this sport; this is why I still love it.