Monday's rain meant Esteban Chaves and his Orica-GreenEdge teammates trained on the rollers rather than out on the road during the third and final rest day of the Giro d’Italia. However, the Australian team and the Colombian climber turned the problem into an opportunity, combining time on the rollers with time spent talking with the media.
Other teams and riders would have kept the media at bay but Chaves seemed to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, smiling as usual as he answered questions and spun his no doubt tired legs. Before the TV cameras and microphones were turned on, he found his rhythm on the bike thanks to some salsa music blasting out of a speaker.
Chaves has plenty of reason to be happy. His career seemed over after a terrible crash during the 2013 Trofeo Laigueglia race left him with multiple fractures. Two months later he underwent surgery for nine hours as specialists repaired the nerves in his right arm one by one, even transplanting nerves from his foot. He still cannot collect his own musette during races but the successful surgery allowed him to accept an offer from Orica-GreenEdge, who had seen his potential and believed he could make a successful comeback.
“I didn’t smile back then, perhaps for 15 months," Chaves explained in a moment of seriousness and emotion as he pedalled and talked at the same time.
"I smiled again when Orica-GreenEdge gave me a chance and gave me a three-year contract. When I felt part of this team I started to smile again.
“I’m serious for sure. I train like a serious guy, I take life seriously too. But if you smile and enjoy life, it doesn’t mean you’re not serious.”
Chaves is serious about his Giro d’Italia ambitions. He avoids going as far as saying he can win the Giro d’Italia but he's not yet ready to accept a place on the final podium in Turin next Sunday.
“I’m as hungry for success as any other rider in the world but we can only try to do our best, both me and the team," he said. "If we can carry on as we have so far in the Giro, it’ll be fantastic. If we slip back, it’ll still be good because we’ll have given our all.”
He is careful to avoid any comparison with compatriot Nairo Quintana, who became the first Colombian winner of the Giro d’Italia in 2014. He also elegantly sidesteps attempts by Spanish-speaking media to spark a rivalry. He shows similar respect for his rivals at this Giro, including Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), who leads him in the overall classification by 2:12.
“He’s showed he’s on great form in the time trial and on the Dolomite stage. He showed he’s the strongest rider in the team. We’ll see what happens but there’s always a difference between what a rider feels in their legs and what they feel in their mind. One can help the other,” Chaves said.
“I think Nibali and Valverde are still hungry. Both Astana and Movistar still haven’t won stages, Valverde isn’t on the podium but wants to get in there and Nibali wants to try to win the Giro for sure. But we’re happy and cool and we’ll go on in the race and see what happens.”
Inner happiness, combining Colombian and Australian culture
Chaves’ inner happiness and the problems he has overcome to continue his professional career seem to cancel out any pressure on his narrow shoulders. His smile is contagious and his Colombian character clearly fits in well with the Australian mentality that runs so strongly through Orica-GreenEdge.
“I think it’s the best combination. The two cultures are really similar. They’re both built on families and being close friends,” Chaves said.
“I’m really happy here to be in this team and really happy to have the support of lots of Australian cycling fans. I think it all helps us enjoy things more. At the end of the day, it's only racing bikes. There are more important things in life, like family and other things; I think that’s the same for everyone in this team. I never feel under pressure and the team never puts pressure on me. This is a beautiful team - I’m happy to be here.”
Chaves revealed he is sharing a room with Canadian Svein Tuft, who has his own unique story and career and has a calming effect on the Colombian.
“I call him my grizzly bear,” Chaves joked. “He’s a really nice guy. He’s calm and we’ve all learnt about life from him. He’s good for a young rider like me.”
Chaves first confirmed his Grand Tour potential at last year’s Vuelta a España, where he won two stages, spent six days in the leader’s jersey and finished fifth overall. Now he is even more serious about his Giro d’Italia ambitions after he and Orica-GreenEdge made the Corsa Rosa their big goal of 2016.
“I think you can learn something in every race you do,” Chaves said.
“Last year there was a lot of pressure on us because it was the first time for me in a leader’s jersey. I won and there were always lots of Colombian fans at the race. So maybe I pushed too much too early and faded in the finale. We arrived at the Giro without too much pressure and too much attention.
“If three years ago someone had told me I’d be in the Giro d’Italia and second in the GC, I wouldn’t have believed them, so that’s why I try to enjoy every moment on the bike. But we arrived with really big objectives: that Esteban Chaves and Orica-GreenEdge are competitive for three weeks. So far we’ve been competitive for two weeks and we’ve got a week left. Now we’ll try to do the same until the end of the Giro."