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Esteban Chaves is one of the most adored riders of the pro peloton – his eternally positive demeanour, his smile that lights up the peloton, and his irrepressible determination are infectious to say the least.
The 29-year-old Colombian showed enormous potential early in his career, winning the Tour de l’Avenir in 2011, only to be sidelined a couple of years later with severe injuries in a crash that left his young career in serious question.
In 2014, Orica-GreenEdge saw the talent within and offered Esteban an initial three-year contract – even though he had yet to return to his potential as a result of his injuries. A year later, Chaves won a stage of the Vuelta a España, and he had a break-out season in 2016 achieving 2nd in the Giro d’Italia, 3rd in the Vuelta a España, and winning the Giro di Lombardia.
But in 2017, it all started sliding away when he was diagnosed with Epstein Barr virus.
Dave Everett caught up with Esteban Chaves at Scott Bikes’ new headquarters in Givisiez, Switzerland. This interview was edited slightly for fluency.
On his comeback
Well, I think I never left. I was always here. Now like before, I always say that I’m here trying. I’m training and being professional like always. But for many different reasons, there are some lessons for what I want. But this process has helped me to learn, and taught me a lot of things about life. Now, I can see everything from a different perspective.
This was a tough chapter of my life… A really hard one, but one with a beautiful end. I want to say [the] end of this is [the] day of my victory of stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia this year.
Looking at the results… about finishing first… about winning… about taking a victory. This is what people and our environment teach us. I had a really successful year in 2016, and of course they want more. So I started pushing myself super hard, pushing every situation. I started calling on friends and family so I could be 100%. A professional outlet, and diet… every single detail.
And at one point of the ride, I didn’t enjoy [it] anymore.
That is when everything started going wrong. So I hit one stone and it started hitting another and another and I pushed to be more and more strict. Until one day, everything exploded and literally I couldn’t pedal anymore.
We saw at last year’s Giro d’Italia I finished last. So that was tough. And we realised I was sick. There were a lot of personal things coming on, and I had injuries. So it was time to go home and be with the people who look after me.
Hitting rock bottom
I rested at the bottom. I went super super to the bottom, and when you are [at] the bottom there’s only one choice – you need to start coming up. And this is what I did. Now I’m enjoying everything. I’m living my dream. I’m on a professional team, one of the best World Tour teams in the world. I’m doing WorldTour races, professional races. I ride one of the best bikes in the world.
I used the key. They provide all of that for me. I grew up dreaming about that and now I enjoy it.
On remembering the privileges of being a pro cyclist and living your dream
It’s a privilege. Of course. Everyone of us works super hard for that. But also many people in the world work hard for that and never get it. So we are privileged to get that and sometimes we take that for granted. And [that’s] when we start doing wrong things.
We need to enjoy everything like when we were kids. When you get you a new pair of shoes when you were a kid, and “this is awesome” and you put them on straight away and ride the bike. We can’t lose that. We need to keep the kid inside, outside. Even when you grow up.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take this thing seriously, because it’s still serious and I’m still hungry and I want to win, but I need to enjoy this. Like you said. We get these bikes, the best bike in the world, for free! It’s a dream to win the Giro d’Italia [stage] with my family and my friends there. And we need to enjoy that.
Sometimes when following the dream, we forget that we are in the dream.
I am what I am because of them. Without them it’s not possible that I’m here. They are one hundred percent part of the success and they deserve being here as well with me. We are a team and the team works together in the hard times, but also the team is together when things are going well.
On his father’s influence
He wished to race. But he couldn’t because his dad, which is my grandfather, didn’t let him ride because he said he didn’t go to university. Because cycling is now dry, and children can’t make a living on the bicycle.
He was just dreaming of being there, but his father wouldn’t let him. So what happened is my dad wanted to change the story of the family – for his kids so they can have everything they want. He wanted to support our dreams, he wanted to support what [we] want. And he did it… And this is the result.
He showed me [the] bicycle, and we watched the races – the Tour de France, the Giro, the Vuelta, the Worlds. There were always bicycles in my house because my dad rode the bike, but every Sunday he never raced. He was just an amateur, but he’s super crazy for cycling. I grew up like this, and it put something inside me.
And now I’m here with them making the story. Last year I forgot to enjoy to that. Now they are here with me.
I was racing pro with Team Colombia when [I] had my big accident in 2013. And the doctors weren’t sure if I could ride the bike again or not. Mitchelton-Scott arrived right at that moment and offered me a contract for three years and I said to them, “but I can’t ride the bike, you know?” And they said, “yeah we know, but we believe in you and we’ll do – whatever you need – physiotherapy, doctors, whatever you need, we’ll provide to you. No worries. We believe in you, we believe in your talent.”
It’s not just my parents. These people at Mitchelton-Scott gave me a big opportunity and I’m a really lucky boy. And during my life I’ve been cruising with a lot of people like this. Giving me one piece – big or small – whatever it is has changed my life. Yeah. I’m a lucky person.
On his foundation
During my life many people helped me and my family. And I arrived at this happiness and success. I want other people in the world to feel that as well. Especially the kids. So if me, my family, an organization can provide that to kids in the world, it will be awesome because they will grow up and they will feel this happiness and success that they have, and that makes a better world.
So I dream really big with that. I say I want to change the world, which is big, but why not?
And we started running this foundation which supports kids in the sport between 15 and 18 years old in Colombia and we provide them bicycles (Scott of course), helmets, glasses, kit … We train, we teach about the life and hopefully one day one of them can arrive to be a professional. And they might remember ‘Esteban Chaves gave me the opportunity and changed my life.’ But even if they don’t arrive to become a professional, cycling and the sport gives a lot of values to them. Responsibility, discipline, resilience, teamwork … that means a lot for the kids. Especially in this range of age. And this is one part of the foundation.
The other part of the foundation is the medical part. So we raise money with a different purpose during the year, for different type of charities. And with that money we help with surgery for kids. Orthopedic problems, because one orthopedic doctor in Colombia, Dr. Julio Sandoval, did my surgery. We’re really close friends. So that’s the link. He changed my life and gave me the opportunity.
A kid who was born with four fingers, or six fingers … Dr. Sandoval will do the surgery for him for free. And the money we raise is for the room, the stitches, for the plates, or whatever they need. So this is what we raise money for. This is the medical power of the foundation.
On what’s next
I will actually race next Sunday – Grand Prix di Lugano – a one day race in Switzerland. And after that I will join the Tour of Slovenia. And after that, we need to check how my body is because [of] what happened last year with the sickness, we need to take a rest and stop and see how it is and put together the second part of the season.
We can’t say anything more about the [race] program because we have no idea yet. Hopefully I can do more races and have more really good feelings like I had in the Giro.