Stay or go? After 50 kilometres of relentless racing on stage 6 of the Giro d'Italia, it finally looked as though a truce of sorts was about to break out. A group of 20 or so riders had finally unmoored itself from the peloton and was bobbing clear when Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) spotted some dangerous stowaways.
The Colombian would doubtless have preferred to spare his climbing legs for the day's only classified ascent, the category 1 haul to the finish atop Mount Etna, but with Sky's David de la Cruz and Sergio Henao already aboard, he didn't dare to miss the boat.
The instinctive decision proved a sage one. The break hit the foot of Etna with a sizeable buffer, and Chaves was the lone survivor from that crew on the upper slopes of the climb, as he emerged from the forestry on its western face to find a summit shrouded in a sea of low cloud.
Approaching the final kilometre, Chaves could sense the imminent approach of a pursuer from behind, but quickly realised it was a friend rather than a foe who was wading across to him. His teammate Simon Yates had attacked from the group of favourites behind, and the Mitchelton-Scott duo reached the finish the line together. The maglia rosa went to Yates, the stage victory to Chaves.
"I thought that there would be only 10 riders in the break, but I saw a lot of riders were in it. I saw there were guys like Henao and De la Cruz, so I did a big effort to get across," Chaves said.
"That was the break, I just made one acceleration, and that was the break. I was fortunate to get in this break. Jack Haig was there too, and I think we and Sky were the ones who worked the most to keep the move up the road."
In 2017, Mount Etna played host to a rather uninspiring summit finish in the Giro's opening week, but this year's steeper approach by way of Ragalna made for a more breathless afternoon of action in Sicily. Chaves knew that the toughest section of the climb began with a shade over five kilometres to go, and he waited for that precise point to unleash his winning attack, dancing past Giulio Ciccone (Bardiani-CSF) to solo clear.
"I knew the hardest part was with five kilometres to go, so I tried to save my legs for then and just try to attack to the finish," said Chaves, who was hard-pressed to keep pace with the flying Yates in the final metres. The Briton's vicious attack with 1,500 metres remaining saw him put 26 seconds into Chris Froome (Sky), Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) et al., but he granted the stage win to Chaves at the summit.
"When Simon Yates caught me he said, 'Come on, let's go, let's go, you take the stage today.' We worked well, not just today but from the start of the season. Today was special, of course, to win on Etna. It's a dream for the team to have the stage, the pink jersey and the blue jersey."
Chaves' stage win means that he now lies in third place overall, 26 seconds behind his teammate Yates and 10 behind the defending champion Dumoulin. The pre-race favourite Froome, meanwhile, is 1:10 off the lead in eighth place overall.
From the outset, Mitchelton-Scott have insisted on a dual-pronged approach to this Giro, but in terms of Giro experience, at least, Chaves can claim to be the senior partner, given that he carried the pink jersey to the final weekend two years ago, when he placed second overall behind Vincenzo Nibali.
Chaves added a podium finish at the Vuelta a España and victory at Il Lombardia later that season, but has endured a trying period since. His 2017 campaign was blighted by injury and tragedy, as he mourned the death of his friend and physio Diana Casas, who was killed in a crash during a cycling event in Colombia in July.
On Thursday, Chaves dedicated his stage victory to the memory of Casas, whose name is inscribed on his shoes. As he stood atop the podium after the stage, Chaves held a shoe up for the cameras.
"Today was a special day, but there's a lot of road to go. We need to enjoy today, but we also need to save our legs and energy where we can. We need to go day by day, and we need to believe," said Chaves, who grinned and nodded in Yates' direction when asked who would be the protected rider at Mitchelton-Scott from here on in. "The leader is the one who is wearing the pink jersey."
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