Esteban Chaves’ refrain during this opening week of the Vuelta a España has been a simple one. "Increíble," the Colombian tends to say at regular intervals in his post-stage press conferences, with a smile and a disbelieving shake of his head.
After landing his second stage victory of the race at Sierra de Cazorla on Thursday and reclaiming the leader’s red jersey in the process, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) noted that Chaves is becoming a credible general classification threat in the longer term, though he and his Orica-GreenEdge team seem determined to live resolutely in the now.
"We’ll just enjoy today and see what happens over the three weeks," directeur sportif Neil Stephens said while Chaves clambered onto the podium to accept the day’s spoils. "I don’t know what to expect from him – I didn’t expect anything from him today and look what he did."
The carpe diem philosophy is not limited to management. Chaves revealed afterwards that it was his teammate Mat Hayman who instructed him to go for broke on Thursday’s third category climb to the finish, just 24 hours on from losing the red jersey when the race split in the finishing straight in Alcalá de Guadaíra.
"In the middle of the stage I spoke with Mat Hayman and he said that if I had good legs at the end I should try for the win, because you never know what might happen tomorrow," Chaves said.
At the Caminito del Rey on Sunday, the diminutive Chaves had bounced across to the leaders and then promptly deposited one Nairo Quintana (Movistar) out the back on the steepest section of the climb.
The average gradient of the Sierra de Cazorla, meanwhile, masked a deceptively tough stretch that touched 15 percent with 2.4km to race, which Chaves had diligently noted ahead of Thursday’s stage. After Daryl Impey nudged him into the Movistar train on the front, Chaves unleashed a vicious attack to dance his way clear.
"I knew that there was one part of the climb with a 14 percent gradient, so on that section I wanted to get away because I had really good legs," Chaves said. "Daryl put me in a really good position, so I started the climb in a good place, just behind Andrey Amador. He was very strong in the Giro, but when I looked at him and I could see that he was not comfortable, so I tried an attack.
"It was a long, hot stage, and even though I felt good, I was worried that I’d be caught after going away so early on the climb."
Though Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) put up a gallant defence of his red jersey and Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) gave determined pursuit, Chaves had enough in reserve to win the stage by five seconds, while the overall favourites came in at 11 seconds. He now leads Dumoulin by 10 seconds overall, with Martin in third, a further 23 behind.
Feet on the ground
Through Chaves and Caleb Ewan, Orica-GreenEdge have now won three stages at this Vuelta, and only narrowly missed out on victory in the opening team time trial to boot. "Caleb won the stage yesterday, then today he was going back to the team car to fetch bottles for me," Chaves said. "This team is incredible, it’s like a family."
Orica-GreenEdge’s early run of success here is compensation of sorts for a Tour de France that did not yield as much as it had promised, and while the team has impressed as a collective at the Vuelta, Chaves is very much the man of the moment. "It seems like he can’t do anything wrong," Daryl Impey said.
Chaves will face a more robust test of his credentials as a realistic contender over three weeks when the Vuelta faces into its first major rendezvous on the long haul to La Alpujarra on Friday. 18.7km in length with an average gradient of 5 percent – though a section at 14 percent near the summit – the Alto de Capileira provides a different kind of challenge to the climbs tackled to this point.
"Tomorrow is difficult," Chaves warned when asked of his prospects against Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome et al on stage 7. "The most important will be to recovery well from today, because it was a big, big effort in that heat.
"There are hard days still to come, so we’re keeping our feet on the ground."