Esteban Chaves has already been through more than one very tough time in his life, and the Colombian is not one to complain without a very good reason. But even the Mitchelton-Scott racer admits that his experiences in 2018 have constituted a very special kind of challenge.
"It was not easy to go from finishing second in the Giro d'Italia [in 2016] to go to being the very last rider to come across the line of the very last stage, like I was in Rome this year," Chaves, now about to turn 29, tells Cyclingnews as he builds towards his 2019 season.
"Those things are hard, but you have to go on fighting and persevering. You have to keep going. I've known and learned about that ever since I was a child. That's how you face life."
Second in 2016, the Colombian's Giro d'Italia bid this May alongside teammate Simon Yates worked out phenomenally well in the first half until Chaves was poleaxed by a combination of viral infections, including glandular fever, a sinus infection and allergies. He finished, but in 72nd place overall and a shadow of his earlier Giro self. He then spent several months off the bike, fighting and identifying the illnesses and viruses before being cleared to resume training.
Now, Chaves is heading back to racing. His program for the 2019 season and first race since the Giro d'Italia last May will start with the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana from February 6-10, but he is as yet uncertain what will happen afterwards. It will be a voyage in the dark.
"I'll be in Colombia until the end of January and then Valencia will be my first race. Depending on how I finish that race, we'll see what we do next," Chaves told Cyclingnews.
"We have to not overdo because the virus could come back. I'm doing tests every month. So we'll be at a team training camp in Almeria in February" - in eastern Andalucia, close to Valencia - "at that point in time, we'll have some tests there and see what effect the race has had."
As for what he would like to do, rather than what he knows is 100 per cent certain to happen in 2019, Chaves says "being in the area [of southern Spain] after Valencia, doing the Vuelta a Andalucia would be good and then we could try a WorldTour race in March."
"But right now I can't specify too clearly that I'd like to do this race or that race because then I'd end up sticking my neck out too far.
"What I want to do is a Grand Tour and have good form, like I had two or three years ago. That's the dream I have. To go for a three-week stage race. I don't know which Grand Tour, but I'd like to do that.
"But it all starts out, in any case, with doing Valencia and then seeing what happens."
As for what the combination of illnesses and viruses were that caused such a spectacular drop-off in condition in the 2018 Giro d'Italia, Chaves says "it's been identified. And the good thing was, with a huge amount of support from the team, was that we gave ourselves the time we needed to identify those different things, what had gone wrong."
As Chaves tells Cyclingnews, the first four months immediately after the Giro d'Italia were the hardest to get through.
"There was a lot of uncertainty, no racing, and no training, either. It was hard to watch cycling on TV, but with all the stuff that's coming through social media, you can't really escape it. But at the same time, it was a motivation. I knew I had to try to get back to where I had been.
"It's easier, much easier to talk about what I had to go through than to experience it. The experience was really, brutally, difficult.
"So it [recovery] was a long process and a tough one. But the team and my family and other people were always supporting me, helping me find the right way, in particular, I'd like to thank Imanol Iza [Mitchelton-Scott staff worker], he and his father Vicente who were great support, also Neil Stephens [former Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif], Manolo Rodríguez [team doctor], Shane Bannan [team boss]. All the team, in fact. They all helped. And I think we're on the way back up there, now. No, we are back up."
"I've had some harsh life experiences in the past, and both my family and me individually have shown we've got the strength you need to get through the things life can throw at you..
"And if we can get through one hard time, then we can get through another. If I got through something like the problem I had with my arm, then I can get through this. I've learned how to do that, both with my family and with my team."
However, quite apart from cycling, Chaves is well-known for his NGO work for charities and he has not been idle off the bike during this lengthy period away from racing.
As he tells Cyclingnews, his own Foundation is currently collaborating with a children's Foundation, the Fundación CardioInfantil in Colombia to help children there whose families lack the resources to help them with orthopaedic problems.
"The Fundación CardioInfantil is a clinic here in Bogota, the most important in Colombia for working with childrens' heart issues, and they've been working here for over half a century," Chaves explains.
"This was also where I had my operation on my arm when I had my accident in Laigueglia in 2013." [One which almost cost him his career, Ed.] "The surgery was carried out by Julio Sandoval. He was the only one who believed back then I could return to racing and who was willing to carry out the operation that effectively saved my career."
"Since then we've found out that there were a lot of children here with orthopaedic issues, like Kevin, who features in a video I've done on my Twitter account, who's eight years old and has cerebral palsy."
"So we are working with the Fundacion, via a crowdfunding scheme so that children like Kevin, who have fallen through the gaps in the Colombian health system and whose parents can't afford to pay for operations, can learn to walk or have the operations they need." (Those interested in contributing and/or finding out more, go here https://vaki.co/vaki/granfondoestebanchaves)
Returning to cycling, Chaves has been sidelined for the second half of the season and the last two years have been a roller coaster. But whilst individually it's been touth, as he points out Colombian professional cycling "is in a very good place right now - how many pros have we got in the WorldTour now? 20? We could form a team."
"It's not just cycling, it's Colombian sport in general," he insists. "And we've seen how riders like Egan [Bernal, Sky] or Miguel Angel [Lopez, Astana Pro Team] are showing what they can do at a world-class level."
And it almost goes without saying that Chaves is determined to show, once again, what he can do, too, as a racer - and at a world-class level, too. Roll on, 2019.
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