After a period of nearly two years away from the podium of a bike race, Esteban Chaves (Team BikeExchange) was back there on Wednesday, racing to second place at stage 3 of the Volta a Catalunya atop the summit finish of Vallter 2000.
The Colombian was back at the front of the race on the ascent to the Pyrenean ski resort, part of an elite group of climbers and GC hopefuls who emerged early on the 11.4-kilometre climb after Ineos Grenadiers had set the early pace.
He held fire on the early slopes as attacks came from teammate Simon Yates and three-time race winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) but jumped from the chase group at 4km to go, shortly after eventual stage winner Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) and Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) bridged across to the veteran Spaniard.
While Yates was attacking for victory at 1.8km to go, Chaves was further down the mountain, working his way past the dropped Valverde and Kuss with a late surge as the television cameras finally found him, second on the road at the flamme rouge. After taking second place, just nine seconds down on Yates, Chaves said he was pleased to be back at the cutting edge of a mountain stage.
"I'm happy with this, the first real test for the legs, the first race," he said after the stage, his third race day of the season. "I'm really happy. The team worked like always really well. We understand each other, and now we look for tomorrow."
Chaves said that he'd lost his racing momentum in the past several years, having suffered mononucleosis in 2018 before returning to a Giro d'Italia stage win in 2019. During last year's coronavirus-affected season, he packed in 58 race days, taking fourth at the Vuelta a Burgos before supporting Adam Yates at the Tour de France and then racing to 27th at the Vuelta a España.
"I just lost the momentum you know," he said. "It's the third race day, and the confidence is not 100 per cent, especially after these few years and few months.
"I lost the momentum and I need to work a little bit for cooperation with the guys at the front. But I'm getting closer. Adam was really strong at the end."
He'll be back in competition tomorrow on the even tougher summit finish of the Port Ainé, an 18.4km, 6.7 per cent mountain near Andorra. The 31-year-old lies ninth overall after Wednesday's stage, 1:21 behind leader Adam Yates, but just 27 seconds down on a podium spot having put 35 seconds into João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) – who now occupies third overall – on Vallter 2000.
Whatever lies in store for Chaves during the rest of the race, he said that Wednesday's result only gives him confidence for the upcoming days, as well as the season ahead.
"That gave us – not just me but the team – a lot of confidence for tomorrow, the coming days and the season ahead."
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