Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) has never needed an excuse for a smile, but the Colombian certainly had plenty to be happy about as he arrived in Saint-Etienne on Sunday morning for the start of the Critérium du Dauphiné, his first race since February.
Beaming, as ever, from ear to ear, the Orica-Scott rider relished the normally mundane pre-race rituals, such as pinning the dossards onto the back of his jersey and rolling to the start line to sign in for the stage ahead – things a knee injury had deprived him of for the best part of four months.
"I'm just so happy to be back," he told Cyclingnews outside the Orica-Scott team bus in Saint-Etienne, where a Colombian fan had pitched himself with over a dozen photos of Chaves he wanted signing.
"I haven't raced since February, and I haven't raced in Europe since October, so it's quite emotional to be back at a race. Also I've hardly raced in France – I've never done Paris-Nice, never done the Dauphiné, never done the Tour – so it will be a really good experience for me.
"There are nerves, for sure, but that's always the case. I believe it's better to have nerves than not to."
After podium finishes at both the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España last year, Chaves' 2017 season was structured around a Tour de France debut, but it went off the rails after a solid early start in Australia. After returning home to Colombia in early February, he picked up a knee problem and hasn't raced since.
"It was a small injury but nothing super serious. I had to take several weeks off the bike, but now it has all been sorted out, and we start again," Chaves said. "I spent all of March off the bike, just doing physio, then it was clear I'd made a full recovery by April. So I got back on the bike in April and have been preparing, slowly but surely, all the way to this point."
Even though he has been training for a good while, the lack of racing raises obvious concerns about Chaves' potential at the Tour. The doubts have been compounded by the fact that the team plucked Simon Yates from his Giro d'Italia preparation to provide another option in July, and it's the young Briton who is the team's nominal leader this week.
Asked about his state of form, Chaves grinned and replied: "That's the big question. That's what I'm here to find out. I'll tell you in eight days.
"I'm here to learn a lot," he added. "Also to help the team with the objectives we have. We've got a really strong team here, so we'll see how it goes. It's day-by-day for me – that's how it has to be."
However the legs turn out in the next eight days, it's certain that Chaves' Tour de France plan has veered far from the script he and his team had written over the winter, though the 27-year-old has clung onto his sense of perspective. He has, of course, been through much worse, with a 2013 crash very nearly ending his career.
"It is what it is. We can't change anything now. That's the way it is. We'll make the best of what we have, as always, and that's it," he said.
"What else can you do? In these situations you have a decision: you can be positive about it, or you can cry about it. Which would you prefer? That's life."
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