Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) tapped into the inspiration of Australian teammate and Paris-Roubaix winner Mat Hayman to fuel his belief that winning the Giro d'Italia is now possible after he claimed victory in Saturday's 14th stage in the Dolomites.
Chaves won the 210km stage from Alpago to Corvara that included six categorized mountains of which five were over 2000m in altitude to move to third place overall going into Sunday's stage 15 mountain time trial.
Chaves won the stage by outsprinting three fellow breakaway companions. In second and third places respectively and at the same time were Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto-Jumbo) who became the new overall race leader and Austrian Georg Preidler (Giant-Alpecin). While Colombian Darwin Atapuma (BMC) who had lead the stage alone but was caught by the other three with two kilometres to go, took fourth place but at 6 seconds after fading in the sprint.
After deposing Costa Rican Andrey Amador (Movistar) from first place overall, Kruijswijk leads the Giro by 41 seconds on Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) who is second despite finishing fifth at 37 seconds on the stage; while Chaves is now third at 1 minute 32 seconds – up from eighth at 2 minutes 19 seconds.
The Mat Hayman influence
After the stage Chaves, who placed fifth overall in last year's Vuelta a Espana, said on RAI Television: "I cannot describe the joy I am experiencing right now."
Asked about his chances of winning the Giro which should become much clearer after Sunday's stage 15 mountain time trial, 10.8km from Castelrotto to Alpe di Suisi, he said: "I saw the time trial course, but there are still many very difficult stages ahead of us. To win a stage like today is a dream come true.
"The truth is I am feeling good. Who knows? Now we will try to win this Giro."
Then later at his stage winner's press conference, Chaves referred to Hayman who won this year's Paris-Roubaix one-day classic in his 15th attempt, but remarkably after recovering from a broken arm sustained five weeks before.
Asked if he could win the Giro and where, he said: "I can't say where because there is still a long way to go but for sure I can win. Anything is possible. Mathew Hayman won Paris-Roubaix and broke his arm five weeks before."
Chaves then drew a parallel with his own set-back in 2013 when his cycling future was thrown in doubt after a crash in the Trofeo de Laigueglia in Italy in February that year when riding for the Colombia-Coldeportes team.
In the crash, he suffered brain trauma, and fractures in his right collarbone, the petrous and sphenoid bones (at the base of the skull) and his right cheekbone was damaged, his sinuses and numerous abrasions. Another diagnosis revealed a fractured jaw, broken inner ear bones, and torn quadriceps. It was later discovered that his axillary nerve was torn apart and the suprascapular nerve partially so from his arm being pulled so far back. He had a second operation in Bogota on his right arm that had lost movement that lasted nine hours for nerves to be taken from his foot to replace the damaged ones, and then faced three months of rehabilitation. Orica-GreenEdge still signed him up at the end of 2013 on a two-year contract that has already been extended to the end of 2018.
Chaves, who won on Saturday with his right arm aloft, said: "When I had my accident I was told I couldn't ride a bike anymore. That's why I raised my arm."
Chaves clearly still feels indebted to Orica-GreenEdge for keeping their faith in him at a time when his career was uncertain. Asked on Saturday what he thought as he crossed the line, he said: "It was difficult to think of anything because I was tired, but when you win the race you are always happy and you think of your family and all people you have worked with. This team has been great with me since I signed this contract. It is like working with a family. The people at the office, the directors … everyone has treated me well in this team."
Working with Kruijswijk to distance Nibali
Chaves said he and Kruijswijk willingly worked together once they found themselves riding together on the last climb of the day, the Passo Valparolo.
The last climb saw Nibali set off the fireworks first. The Italian launched an attack from the group of Giro favourites that was chasing the survivors of the early breakaway group. The move saw Spanish contender Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) dropped. But three kilometres later when Kruijswijk attacked, only Chaves could follow and the pair quickly seized the chance to distance Nibali. In time they caught the last breakaway riders – Preidler and finally Atapuma.
"I spoke to Steve and said, 'Shall we go together?" said Chaves. "That's exactly what happened. We worked together. I won the stage and he took the jersey."
When asked how he felt about his fortune and the demise of Nibali and Valverde who finished 11th at 3 minutes and is fourth overall at 3 minutes 6 seconds, Chaves said: "Well we are not robots. There was 5000m of climbing in this stage. So it was not easy. It has been fantastic to actually be able to take a gap on Nibali who is a great champion. We will see how things go …."
Chaves acknowledge Movistar for how hard they rode early, saying: "After 14 days I was really tied. First hour of the race 54km/h then Movistar started super strong and everyone suffered. Then it was suffering suffering suffering."
But Chaves then said of the day in which the stage was raced under brilliant sunshine and showcased the Dolomites in all their natural beauty: "It was incredible because when you win all the universe goes around you. It was a perfect day, perfect day to ride a bike and perfect day because of course I won."
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Rupert Guinness first wrote on cycling at the 1984 Victorian road titles in Australia from the finish line on a blustery and cold hilltop with a few dozen supporters. But since 1987, he has covered 26 Tours de France, as well as numerous editions of the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana, classics, world track and road titles and other races around the world, plus four Olympic Games (1992, 2000, 2008, 2012). He lived in Belgium and France from 1987 to 1995 writing for Winning Magazine and VeloNews, but now lives in Sydney as a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media) and contributor to Cyclingnews and select publications.
An author of 13 books, most of them on cycling, he can be seen in a Hawaiian shirt enjoying a drop of French rosé between competing in Ironman triathlons.