A contemporary of Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves has often seemed to follow his compatriot’s career at something of a remove. Quintana won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2010, for instance, Colombia’s first in quarter of a century, and then Chaves duly matched the feat a year later.
When Quintana announced his arrival at senior level by winning the Route du Sud and a stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2012, Chaves responded in turn by landing victory on the toughest stage of the Vuelta a Burgos later that summer.
Chaves was following Quintana once again on the slopes of the Alto de la Mesa in the finale of stage 2 of the Vuelta a España, though it had the feel of a watershed moment for the Orica-GreenEdge rider. With the spectacular Caminito del Rey as a backdrop, he caught and then dropped his fellow countryman in the finale to win the day and move into the overall lead.
"It’s incredible, it’s my first win in a three-week stage race and it was amazing to win it the way that I did," Chaves said after pulling on the red jersey of race leader. "It’s a reward for all of my work with the team in the past two years."
While Quintana quickly confirmed his considerable potential by claiming Giro d’Italia victory and podium finishes at the Tour de France, Chaves has taken longer to establish himself at WorldTour level, due in no small part to the effects of his heavy crash at the 2013 Trofeo Laigueglia.
"It was early in the season and it made for a very tough year. I travelled back to Colombia for the operation on my arm, and I only have 80 percent mobility in it even now but that’s enough for it not to hinder me on the bike," Chaves explained.
That trying campaign ended on a high when he graduated from the Colombia-Coldeportes squad to sign for Orica-GreenEdge, and he showed sustained glimpses of his capabilities in a debut campaign that included stage victory at the Tour de Suisse.
Chaves’ stated objective for this Vuelta, the third Grand Tour of his career, was to explore his limits as a general classification rider over three weeks, but the first road stage of the race, with its punchy 4.7km haul to the line, seemed too good an opportunity to resist. While Katusha and Movistar took responsibility for controlling the peloton in the finale, a determined delegation from Orica-GreenEdge shoehorned Chaves into position ahead of the climb.
"We knew it was a fast climb and that it was going to be very explosive. It was important to be in a good position at the bottom of the climb and my teammates did a great job to get me up there," said Chaves, who initially opted to bide his time when Quintana launched a powerful acceleration three kilometres from the summit.
"When Nairo, [Nicolas] Roche and [Tom] Dumoulin went away, I hesitated for a bit and then I decided to wait a little longer, but I was able to get across to them with two kilometres to go."
On bridging to the three leaders, Chaves moved promptly to the front, and his forcing as the gradient rose to 15% surprisingly dislodged Quintana from their number with 1,500 metres remaining. He would concede 26 seconds by the summit. "It’s hard to say what happened but these things can happen to anybody," Chaves said of Quintana’s struggles. "But Nairo’s a great rider."
Rather than lead all the way to the line, Chaves stalled and swung across the road as the road flattened out. Roche blinked first, launching an attack with 500 metres to go that fizzled out shortly afterwards. When Chaves hit the front again, only Dumoulin could follow, but the Dutchman was unable to come around him and conceded victory in the final 50 metres.
"It was nervous in the final kilometre because you never know if other guys will be stronger than you, so I didn’t want to lead the whole way," Chaves said.
Thanks to the time bonus for winning the stage, Chaves holds a lead of 5 seconds over Dumoulin and 15 over Roche, while Quintana and the principal overall favourites are all over half a minute back. As the Vuelta mixes sprint stages and punchy terrain as it winds around Andalusia in the coming days, Chaves will look to keep a hold of his red jersey.
"Now I clearly have a slightly different objective for the Vuelta than before, because we’ll want to keep the jersey for as long as possible," he said.