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Chaves: It's in tough moments when you see the real athlete

After several weeks out with a knee injury Esteban Chaves is back on the bike and determined to line up for the Tour de France in July as Orica-Scott's team leader.

Chaves picked up the injury in early spring and was forced to miss the Colombian nationals. The prolonged time off the bike saw him scarp plans to race in Europe during March, and after four weeks without riding, the 2016 Giro runner-up has confirmed he will return to action at either the Tour de Suisse or the Criterium du Dauphine in June.

"The knee is now good and a lot better than before," he told Cyclingnews via Skype from his home in Colombia this morning.

"It was a small injury and I've used the time to concentrate on areas I've not worked on much before, so swimming, gym, strength and core work. That's all really helped and now I'm back on the bike for almost a month come this next Monday."

Chaves' stellar 2016 season saw him finish on the podium in both the Giro and the Vuelta a Espana, with an Il Lombardia title thrown in for good measure. This campaign is centred on the Tour de France, where Chaves plans to make his debut later this summer. According the Orica climber the plan was never in doubt, despite the prolonged time off the bike. He admits that he is currently far from his best but that with time to train with two injury-free knees, he should be back up to speed in a matter of weeks.

"The pain has completely gone but I still feel shit on the bike. But that's normal," he told Cyclingnews.

"I stopped for three or four weeks with no bike and then just did a bit of riding on the trainer at home. Those feelings are normal though, having had a long break. It takes time for your body to come back but the good thing is that it shouldn’t take long for the performance side to return. I just have to train hard. It's part of the process and that’s just how it is for this year. The main thing was to keep working on recovery, and not get desperate. If you do that then you're only looking at another injury."

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While Chaves has been nursing a sore knee and doing laps of his local pool the rest of his Tour de France rivals have been busily duking it out on roads of Europe. Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Romain Bardet and a gaggle of other Tour contenders have all built up their race miles, injury free, and Chaves admits that the setback may come back to haunt him at the Tour. For now, the goal of leading the team remains intact, however.

"Everything depends on how I progress with both the knee and my overall condition. We'll see if I do the Dauphine or Tour de Suisse but then I'll go to the Tour de France for the first time. I know Suisse, I've done it twice but we've not made a call on which race I do before July yet.

"For aims, this is the first time I'm going to the Tour de France. That's no secret. The first objective is to be at the race and that's always been the idea. Maybe now I'll suffer a lot in the third week because I don't have enough race days in my legs but we'll see. As I always say, we take it day-by-day and go from there. We'll try to do well and enjoy the race, that's more important than the final."

Chaves has been able to draw on his past experiences with injures to help him through this latest set back. In 2013, his career was on the brink after a high-speed crash in Italy. Among his catastrophic injuries - a compound fracture of his right collarbone, fractures to his skull, right cheekbone, maxillary sinuses and sphenoid bone, a punctured lung, and suspected rib fractures along with multiple contusions. The doctors, and Chaves, had no idea if he would return to the sport.

That experience has left Chaves able to overcome the latest knee setback and take the enforced time off the bike in his stride. The biggest hurdle, it seems, has been the change of race programme.

"I don't like having to change my plan and I like having the blocks of racing and the blocks of training. When I was injured it was hard but this wasn't the first injury I've had and I'm not the first pro athlete to have this problem. Bad things happen but it's in these moments when you see the real athlete. There's no point in getting frustrated. We just have to see what happens."

The next few weeks will see Chaves remain at home in Colombia, where he can train in peace. Assuming the knee remains pain free, the race form should come in June. Just in time.

"The conditions are perfect here. I'm on the roads I've used for training for the last 15 years and I'm at altitude. I've got friends to train with and my brother too. I can't argue about the conditions. My weight is okay. I've not put on 20kg, just a couple, but that's normal with the gym work that I've been doing.”

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