Esteban Chaves' (Orica-GreenEdge) performance on stage four of the Tour de Langkawi was nothing less than impressive when you consider what the young Colombian has been through in the last 12 months. Chaves crossed the line 10 seconds behind stage winner Mirsamad Pourseyedi Golakhour to finish in fourth place, in his first race since a horrific accident at the Trofeo Laigueglia in February 2013.
His success was a culmination of a year's dogged determination to make it back to a professional level and the unwavering support of his new Orica-GreenEdge team. The relief and gratitude was evident when he spoke to Cyclingnews at the finish.
"I am really happy. It's incredible this result, after one year with no races and no good training. I want to say thank you to the guys, Shane, Alvaro, Neil for the opportunity in this team. This is one to say thank you," he said emotionally.
The Tour de Langkawi is the first race for the Colombian while racing with a WorldTour team. For many securing a contract with a top-flight team is an important step in their career ladder but to Chaves it was much more than just that; it was a lifeline for a career that he though was all but over.
"In April, May and June they were really hard and I thought that my career was finished and that there would be no more bike," he told Cyclingnews. "These moments were very difficult, but I had my family and my girlfriend were with me."
As a result of his accident at the Trofeo Laigueglia, he was left with list of injuries that wouldn't be out of place in a multiple rider pile-up. The Colombian suffered with a compound fracture to his right collarbone, fractures in his left petrous bone, right cheekbone, maxillary sinuses and sphenoid bone, pulmonary compressions and abrasions.
Chaves had to undergo multiple surgeries and extensive therapy to regain his mobility. Amidst that, he received an offer from Orica, a testament to their belief in the 23-year-old's talent. It was this piece of paper that helped Chaves to pull through the moments when he wanted to pack it all in.
"I was really surprised and it is one very important reason that I continued to fight. There were days when I thought 'no more', but the contract was on the table and it was the main reason to continuing to fight, to work and to work on my shoulder. For the mentality it was very important, the most important thing is the head. This opportunity is amazing."
Chaves says that, physically, he isn't suffering with his injuries. The most difficult thing for him has not been the recovery of movement, but combating the mental issues that come with such big crashes. He says that it is still a work in progress. "Returning after I had the accident and getting into the group, little by little things got better. Now that I am racing again, my head is better," he explained to Cyclingnews.
"It's very difficult being in the group. Always in my head, I have the accident. I always have it in my head when I pass something."
Born to ride
Chaves' passion for the sport comes from his father who was obsessed with riding his bike. As a 12-year-old it finally rubbed off on the young Esteban, who asked his father for his first bicycle. Despite coming from Colombia, his heroes weren't just the nation's climbers he had many, including Marco Pantani, Paolo Bettini and Alberto Contador. Now, he is finally riding with the men he used to watch on the television back in, Cundinamarca, Bogotá. He's also confirming the potential he showed when he won the 2011 Tour de l'Avenir.
"I remember one day in the Tour de France I saw Pieter Weening win one stage, beating Andreas Klöden. I remember this stage and now I ride in the same team as Pieter. It's incredible," he said.
It's clear that Chaves can't quite believe his luck that he has finally made it through to the top level of cycling. Underneath this wide-eyed youthfulness lies a steely determination to succeed, something that helped him conquer his injuries more than the contract offer. While he's delighted with the move, he won't rest on his laurels just yet.
"I don't work for a position in a WorldTour team and then stop. I dream that one day I can win the Tour de France. For this reason I work," he says. "I like Tirreno-Adriatico, Lombardia and the Giro d'Italia is very beautiful, but my big dream is to win the Tour de France."
Back to the best
Chaves' season still has a reasonable amount of fluidity attached to it, depending on how he develops over the year. With such little training and even less competition, it is hard to gauge where he will be. This season, the team are giving Chaves the freedom to develop and not putting undue pressure on him to perform.
The Colombian is looking to the end of the year for a time when he may be able to truly contest the races he enters and he may even get the chance to ride his first Grand Tour.
"The team and I want to make the Vuelta a España. If I feel good in the group and I have good sensations then maybe I will make the Vuelta," he says. "There are many summit finishes, which are perfect for me."
The road to recovery has been a long one for Chaves and he continues it as he embarks on his first season in the WorldTour. Orica-GreenEdge has shown a lot of faith in this young climber from Bogotá and he knows the best way to say thank you is with great performances.
"I want a result for Orica-GreenEdge, because they helped me and maybe in the future I can repay them."