The curtain has closed on the 2019 Giro d’Italia. The ticker tape has landed. The unfurled flags are being stuffed back into suitcases, re-emerging when the next chance to showcase cycling-related patriotism comes around. Movistar’s tactics were executed flawlessly; Richard Carapaz reigned victorious, separated from his team for one last time trial around the streets of Verona, a different feeling to the flanked protection that he had felt for three weeks. Slovenian Primož Roglič undertook a journey that, at times, felt sharply contrasting to a protected Carapaz’s. He was often distanced from his team through no fault of their own. Vital experience gained for his younger teammates, yet ultimately a Grand Tour lost. Roglič was the favourite coming into the Giro. He had never lost a stage race that he had participated in this year, until the 26-year-old from Ecuador and ‘Shark of Messina’ leapfrogged him in general classification.
The 3,518-kilometre trip around Italy enabled the unravelling of diverse narratives along the route from Bologna to Verona. Abandons, controversy, crashes, relegations and victories all played a part in the legacy of the 102nd Giro d’Italia. Because that’s the beauty of cycling. Anything can happen.
Anything did happen.
The last three weeks bared witness to spectacular victories. Supposed sprint stages ultimately tipped in the favour of the tenacious breakaway – Damiano Cima, one third of the lasting break on stage 18 – came within mere metres of being swallowed up by the impending peloton. Instead, he emptied himself after over 180 kilometres at the head of the race, ensuing a first Giro d’Italia victory not only for himself, but for his Nippo–Vini Fantini–Faizanè team. A win that might have been “just another win” for the World Tour teams, but potentially produces more sponsorship and a means of staying afloat for another few years at the Professional Continental level. More race invites in the future. More chances.
Let’s not forget the heroic efforts of Team Sunweb’s Chad Haga on the final stage. A car on the wrong side of the road almost cut his life short in 2016 and yet here he is in 2019, winning the stage 21 time trial as he simultaneously forces every viewer of the Grand Tour to reach for the tissue box and dry their eyes.
The Giro d’Italia provided another chapter in the lives of all 176 riders that flew to Bologna to roll down the first time trial ramp. Some chapters were added to already swelling books, heaving with the lively experiences that go hand-in-hand with the opportunity to experience a dream that many of us can only imagine.
Esteban Chaves is one rider with a book already bursting at the seams. Life experiences almost unparalleled. A smile almost unrivalled.
If you search “adversity” in the dictionary, a picture of the Colombian – happy, of course – would be below it. He has been through much in his 29 years, managing to bounce back even stronger than before.
In 2013, Chaves’ career almost threatened to end before it could truly take off. A crash at the Trofeo Laigueglia left him with head trauma, broken ribs, blood-filled lungs, a partial tear in his suprascapular nerve and a completely torn axillary nerve. It affected his memory too, the young rider often calling his father to tell him that he was in the hospital, a fact he had already relayed countless times before. Numerous doctors told Esteban that he would never race again. He, and the final doctor he went to, disagreed.
Neil Stephens refused to give up on Chaves, signing him before he had even recuperated. The directeur sportif reassured him that they knew about the nine-hour surgery he had undertaken, and that they would provide him with help. Chaves flew to Catalonia so the team could see him on the bike. Stephens told him it was a done deal. They were signing him right away.
“Unbelievable! This is why I believe in dreams. They gave me hope. Every morning I woke up, I knew I had one step towards my dream of racing Grand Tours. I knew I needed to work hard because they gave me the chance to live my dream once again.” Esteban revealed in an interview with ‘de velo’.
Chavito and Mitchelton-Scott, who were racing under the name Orica-GreenEDGE when the then-23-year-old joined them in 2014, have been the perfect match. Their belief in the Colombian was substantiated. He climbed to new heights, literally and figuratively, up mountains and up general classifications. 2016 was a standout year in Chaves’ career, at the height of his fitness and at a time when only Vincenzo Nibali could contest him in the Giro d’Italia. On one fateful day and one fateful climb, the penultimate stage and penultimate climb to be exact, Esteban was distanced while wearing the coveted maglia rosa by his Italian rival. Initially it was heartbreak, a fairy-tale ending could have produced Orica-GreenEDGE’s first Grand Tour victory, one that sat right with an abundance of cycling fans who often hold contrasting views on Grand Tour winners.
Colombian flags and football shirts were on full display as footage of Esteban losing time to Astana’s Nibali then played during the Backstage Pass video for stage 20. “I won’t back down”, sang the background vocals, an apt addition by Dan Jones.
Yet Esteban was, naturally, all smiles at the end of the stage, encircled by his fellow teammates. “Thank you… all the team, my family. This is because you, you guys, Australia, believed in me. Gave me a hand in the most difficult moment of my life. And this is only the beginning.”
Sam Bewley added that this race was the defining moment in which the Australian team showed the world what they could do in Grand Tours, as did Chaves. A statement quickly followed by rapturous applause, as Amets Txurruka and Bewley lifted the small Colombian over their heads in celebration.
At the Vuelta a España that same year, Chaves climbed his way to third in the general classification, standing alongside second-placed Chris Froome (Team Sky) and winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) on the podium in Madrid. One of the most memorable sights involved Damien Howson riding back from the breakaway and burying himself for his team leader to ensure he made the podium over Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador. Howson pulled off with 16 kilometres to go on the brutal Alto de Aitana climb on stage 20, looking so spent that he could barely turn the pedals. It worked. After all, Esteban finished third by 13 seconds.
Chaves capped off the year in spectacular fashion, becoming the first Colombian to win Il Lombardia ahead of Diego Rosa (Astana) and countryman Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac).
Another moment that stuck with me occurred after stage 20 of the 2017 Vuelta a España. The Mitchelton-Scott team car (which had died on the unsparing Angliru climb) greeted Chaves as he rode back towards them. “This is the hardest climb I have ever done in my life… but also, it’s a beautiful one.”
I know what you’re thinking. But Esteban, how can something labelled ‘the toughest climb in Spain’ be so beautiful?
“Because you can feel at one with the people. It’s a really nice feeling. I think not many sportspeople can feel that. Cycling is beautiful… but it’s hard.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
The Giro d’Italia in 2018 couldn’t have started any better for Mitchelton-Scott. Chaves won atop the stage six Mount Etna summit finish, made even more glorious by the fact teammate Simon Yates finished directly behind him, both with their arms raised in unified celebration as Yates took the maglia rosa off BMC’s Rohan Dennis. It then couldn’t have gone any worse for Mitchelton-Scott. A few days after his win, Chaves started to struggle. He ended the Grand Tour in an uncharacteristic 72nd place on GC. Yates relinquished the maglia rosa to Chris Froome, losing almost 40 minutes to the eventual Giro winner during stage 19.
After many tests, Chaves was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus. He took an eight-month break from racing. The virus itself can be a nightmare, described as “like a flu that won’t subside”. Riders such as Mark Cavendish and Stefan Küng have also faced months off the bike in an attempt to regain a decent level of fitness.
“It’s beautiful to be back.”– Esteban Chaves.
The Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in 2019 marked Chaves’ return, his peloton homecoming long-awaited after his lack of presence was felt throughout the cycling world.
On the 17th stage of the 2019 Giro d’Italia, AG2R La Mondiale’s Nans Peters broke away from the breakaway to claim the team’s first Giro victory in eight years. Esteban kept his cool in the chasing group, launching an attack that distanced Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates) and Krists Neilands (Israel Cycling Academy). He climbed his way to the finish line; Mitchelton-Scott labelled it an “emotional second place”. They were right. It wasn’t a stage victory, but Esteban had demonstrated that his fitness truly was returning after eight months off the bike. A victory in itself.
“Second is good but also you have this strange taste in your mouth. But anyway, we will continue to try until the end of the Giro.” – Esteban Chaves after stage 17.
He tried again two days later. A 151-kilometre route from Treviso to San Martino di Castrozza, the 19th stage was a day containing three climbs. It was on the final one, the category two San Martino di Castrozza with a summit on the finish line, that Esteban attacked on. He attacked, he attacked again, he attacked once more. Putting the hammer down with 2.7 kilometres to go, Esteban dropped Pieter Serry (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and François Bidard (AG2R La Mondiale), flying around corners with gritted teeth as the gap to his former breakaway companions grew. I don’t know what was being yelled into his earpiece by the Mitchelton-Scott car, but past episodes of the Backstage Pass dictate it was probably loud encouragement mixed with a couple of ah fruits from team staff, with eyes on the road and minds solely transfixed on the climber that they had initially believed in all those years ago. The belief that was still there, through injuries and the Epstein-Barr virus. As Rob Hatch told viewers while commentating, “Esteban Chaves is about to confirm that we should never, ever lose faith in a big champion like this.”
Just before the finish, Esteban glanced to the left-hand side of the road at whom I presume were his parents, a circumstance that sums up everything perfectly fitting about this day. He drew a cross with his hand and let out an almighty roar in celebration as he rode over the line. One that showed just how much this win meant to Chavito, the champion that had refused to give up – just as he had demonstrated all those years ago after crashing at Trofeo Laigueglia, just as he had demonstrated during stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia in 2016, just as he had demonstrated in the face of the Epstein-Barr virus. A trait that was especially evident in the final few kilometres of stage 19 of the 2019 Giro d’Italia, an attacking prowess on show that meant even you knew – yes you, the one sat at home cheering on Esteban from your sofa – that he would take the stage. Emotions overcame everyone at the finish line that day, and everyone watching at home. The man that had been through so much was now crying into the arms of his parents, who were in turn crying with him.
His victory on the summit of the San Martino di Castrozza climb meant Chaves became the first Colombian to win a stage at three different editions of the Giro d’Italia. History made. Heartstrings tugged.
“Give me some Kleenex tissues,” Chris Juul-Jensen told the camera post-stage 19, “I’m going to find the little guy and cuddle him.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more popular winner across the entirety of the peloton. There’s a reason why Esteban is so beloved, not only in his home of Bogotá, and not only in his adopted country of Australia, but worldwide. In a sport that often makes headlines for the negatives, Esteban radiates positivity with a smile as big as his heart. Which is pretty big, if you were uncertain. Grand Tour victories or stats on a computer screen do not tell the full story of Esteban Chaves. Neither does this blog post. But there’s no doubt that the smiling Colombian embodies everything that we should aspire to be. Not only as a cyclist, but as a person. His win on stage 19 of the 2019 Giro d’Italia was a win for himself. It was a win for Mitchelton-Scott.
It was a win for cycling.