A tenacious climbing performance by Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) in the mountains of Andorra on Monday has seen the Colombian throw his hat into the ring once more as a GC contender in the Vuelta a España.
After his difficult Tour de France, where Chaves was never really able to shine at the level he had in the Giro and Vuelta in 2016, a large question mark hovered over what the Colombian could achieve in his second Grand Tour of 2017.
But few hours after the dust had settled on Andorra's dramatic high mountain stage in the Vuelta, as newly crowned leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) observed afterwards, of all the GC contenders, Chaves was the only rider able to follow him when he had attacked. Although a larger group of rivals then caught the lead duo on the descent, in terms of climbing, it was, Froome said, "a great ride by Chaves."
Surrounded by a sea of excited Colombian TV camera crews and radio reporters at the line, Chaves quickly took questions just a few seconds after finishing fifth on the stage. He is now sixth overall, whilst teammates Adam and Simon Yates, who both finished inside 30 seconds of the lead group, are in eighth and eleventh overall.
"I tried to follow Froome, I was on the limit, then five or six riders caught us and it all came down to a sprint," Chaves explained to the press pack. "We knew what was coming, we could see it was going to be a hard stage, but I didn't expect Froome to be so aggressive. I thought it'd be more about everybody looking at everybody else."
"But his team did a brilliant job, working so hard. I can't complain about how Orica-Scott did either, though, we were really strong as well."
Chaves had already shown he was determined to keep in the thick of the action on Sunday after he finished eleventh at Gruissan and gained a few seconds on Chris Froome in the final splits. And, quite apart from last year's third place overall, the Colombian has certainly got a solid history of strong racing in the early part of la Vuelta, too.
In 2015 he led the race for six days in the first week, and garnered two uphill stage wins, in El Caminito del Rey and again in Cazorla. On the downside, historically speaking, Chaves lost the lead at Cumbres del Sol, the climb la Vuelta will tackle again on Saturday, losing nearly a minute to Froome in the process. But after Monday's hugely encouraging performance in Andorra, Chaves will likely be focussing on the present and not the past in this year's Vuelta.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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