A bittersweet podium for Esteban Chaves

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VALDOARA, Italy (CT) — Esteban Chaves held his hand up, fingers a few millimeters apart. That close. “Second,” he said, “is like this.” He made a little tsk sound, and then smiled. The English word he was looking for, I think, was ‘bittersweet.’

He stood still sweaty in a dirt parking lot just downhill from the Giro d’Italia’s stage 17 finish, just as Nans Peters stood on the pink-draped stage of the Giro podium. There are two ways to look at the ride Chaves just completed. One: disappointment. He is a Grand Tour contender, after all. Or was. Shouldn’t a rider like that win over a 25-year-old relatively unknown Frenchman?

Or two: as proof of a return.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, picking the latter, smiling the smile we all know by now, before letting in a dose of pragmatism. “It’s a lot of suffering as well.”

Chaves was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus shortly after the Giro last year, just a few weeks after taking a stage win atop Mt. Etna. He was sitting in third, 10 days into that race, and then he detonated. Twenty-five minutes gone in one day. And he knew something was wrong.

Diagnosis took weeks. “In this sport, we are used to answers and results coming fast, and this process was slow,” he said at the time. “The time can make you crazy.”

He got off his bike, and stayed off it. It was the longest period without riding since he’d picked a bike up in the first place, he said. Training resumed in August, slowly.

Look back through his results since early this year, when he returned to racing, and you’ll find a pile of mid-pack forgetables. Finishes in the 40s, 50s, 60s. Not his old self. Wednesday’s stage was the first real go. Which is why, even though he lost to a relatively unknown Frenchman, that second place is just as sweet as it is bitter.

Chaves on his way to second on stage 17 of the Giro.

Chaves came into this Giro without the weight of expectation. The rarefied air of a Grand Tour GC battle was still out of reach, even though he was feeling better than he had since the diagnosis. There were no GC goals; only a desire to help Simon Yates, and push into the third week as best he could.

He’s sharing breakaway duty with Mikel Nieve and Lucas Hamilton. “We always put one guy in the breakaway, so we can try for the stage,” Chaves said. “And if something happens, you wait and help Simon.”

He’s been waiting all Giro for his legs to come around. The start of Wednesday’s stage 17 was vicious, and making the break was a test of legs, not tactics. “I was thinking of going for the break, but I was on the rivet in the peloton for two hours,” AG2R’s Larry Warbasse said to me, sticking his thumb under his chin in the universal sign for “it was hard.” The riders who made that move deserved to be there, and Chaves made the move.

That’s to be expected from a rider of his class, even off top form. And make no mistake, he’s still off top form. But even he doesn’t know how close to the old Esteban he is now.

“I hope close [to 100%],” he said. “For sure closer than one month ago, for sure closer than two months ago, and a lot of closer than one year ago. I can’t tell you exactly, because we are human beings, a lot of things can change.”

Epstein-Barr is particularly nefarious for endurance athletes. It causes infectious mononucleosis, which presents with extreme fatigue, making hard training and racing impossible. Riders can be taken out for entire swaths of a season – as Mark Cavendish was when he was diagnosed for a second time last year. The only cure is rest and recuperation.

For the average person, feeling normal may take a matter of weeks. But for the top tier of endurance athletes, the timeline can be much longer.

“I’m not 100% in my best shape, but I will continue to try,” Chaves said. “I believe in myself. You saw today that I dropped in the second to last climb and I just kept riding, kept believing, got back in the group to play my cards.”

That only makes Wednesday’s second place all the more bittersweet.

“This is cycling, this is life,” he said. “Nothing else we can do. It is beautiful. But like I said, second is like…” He stops, holds his fingers a few millimetres apart.

Bittersweet. That’s the English word you’re looking for, Esteban.

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