Esteban Chaves held his hand against his heart on the top step of the Il Lombardia podium as the Colombian national played on the speakers. He had just become the first from his country to win one of cycling's five Monuments, and is the first non-European winner of the Italian end-of-season race.
Chaves already had a great 2016 season with second in the Giro d'Italia behind Vincenzo Nibali and a hard-fought third at the Vuelta a España. Now his season has ended on an incredible high.
His happy smile could express what he was feeling, also because Il Lombardia is also his local Classic. He trained on many of the roads covered today while at Team Colombia team in 2012 and 2013.
"I started as a pro rider in Bergamo, living near here in Curno. I always have a special feeling for the races in Italy. It was impressive to cross the line as a winner. The dream comes true. I'm super happy," he said.
"It's huge to become the first non-European to win Il Lombardia and the first Colombian to win a Monument," he said. The result proves that dreams can come true not only for him, but for everyone in Colombia he added. "You only have to work and believe. I'm a normal guy from Bogotà, I come from a normal family," he said
"To make the top 5 in one of the hardest races in the world isn't accidental. It's because of the all team and staff at Orica-BikeExchange. They work hard with all their hearts. Last night I was a bit nervous and scared. Tonight I'll celebrate with the boys, a pizza and a beer."
Scared to lose
Chaves launched the attack on the Selvino climb with 30km to go that shook out the front group of riders. Only Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) were able to go with him, and then Diego Rosa (Astana) made a huge effort to go across the gap to make the decisive quartet. Bardet lost contact when Chaves and Uran attacked on the final climb to Bergamo Alta making it a close three-rider sprint at the finish after the descent to Bergamo Bassa.
"I was scared to lose at the finish but had I finished second or third it wouldn't matter much because I knew I had done my best," Chaves said.
"I recon'd the last 100km of the course with the team. Our directeur sportif Vittorio Algeri is from Bergamasco, we've done all climbs and descents. I also knew I had a good condition. I was supposed to share the leadership with Simon Yates but he fell ill. Our tactic was to keep calm and save legs for the end and that's what happened. At the end, I had fuller legs than the other boys."
Chaves played down suggestions of a Colombian combo with Uran to beat Rosa.
"We all race with different jerseys, we can't be allies," he said. "The final kick I've done many times and I previewed that pavé section up to Bergamo a couple of times. Rigoberto and myself created a gap on Diego on the climb but he closed it. Then it all came down to a sprint. You can't have a hot head in moments like that, you have to keep your cool, you have to give your best after the curve and not before it. You have to wait, and that's easier to say than do because there's a lot of emotions with a race like Lombardia."
Chaves is part of the now hugely successful new generation of Colombian riders. But he warned that he and Vuelta a Espana winner Nairo Quintana are just the tip of the talented iceberg from South America.
"For sure, what Colombia has done this year is incredible but you'll see in the next five or six years, there are many more Colombian guys to come," he said.
"I've had an incredible season but the hardest is to maintain being competitive at this level. In the past years, we wanted to get good results, this year we wanted wins and better results in Grand Tours. Last year I was meant to get a good ranking at the Vuelta and I did it. This year I also did it but at both the Giro and the Vuelta. After the Vuelta I asked to race Lombardia because I like this race so much and I know that when you have the legs, it's worth giving it a go."
"In my mind, stage races are beautiful but I also have a special feeling for this particular one-day race. I'll have to see in the future if any other classic suits me but firstly I'll focus on stage races. But that's enough raving for this season. This is my last race. Now it time to celebrate the season and go on vacation."
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