'I still really believe I can win the Tour de France': Esteban Chaves determined to make it to the top following illness and injury setbacks

The Colombian is rational about his recovery from illness but trusts his body to return to former glory

Esteban Chaves wins stage 19 of the Giro d'Italia 2019 (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Almost five seasons on since the world anointed him as a future Grand Tour winner, Esteban Chaves has declared that he can put his barren run of form behind him and still win one of cycling’s biggest races.

In 2016, BikeExchange’s Colombian star won a stage and finished second in the Giro d’Italia, following it up with a third-placed finish at the Vuelta a España, just weeks before he won Il Lombardia.

Those standout results followed a fifth place at the 2015 Vuelta when he first showed his immense promise.

The hope of kicking on and winning one of the three Grand Tours, however, has yet to materialise, with injury and illness setting him back in the past few years.

In 2018, after winning a stage of the Giro d’Italia but then dropping out of overall contention after sitting in second place, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever, with one of the main symptoms being chronic fatigue.

At the 2020 Vuelta a España, Chaves looked in good form until stage 10 when he dropped away from a high of seventh on GC to finish 27th.

Asked if his future years will be focused on chasing stages and one-day victories, the 31-year-old flatly rejected such suggestions. “Not really, no,” he told Cycling Weekly from his Colombian home where is continuing his winter training.

Esteban Chaves on stage 17 of the 2019 Giro d'Italia (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“I have had a few really good results in one-day races but that’s not my objective. I am a pure climber, my abilities can show better in Grand Tours and one-week races. It’s not a mystery.

“I still really believe I can win the Tour de France. If I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t ride my bike anymore.

“This is why I am still doing this job, still riding as a pro because I really believe. I know I have the talent and I know my body can do it. I hope it will be sooner rather than later because it’s too painful [not competing for top honours].”

In his return to form, Chaves won an emotional stage of the 2019 Giro, and he is convinced by the process and the method he is pursuing.

“We need to get back to basics, keep believing and working and let the body come back to the feeling it had in 2017, when the health problems, and issues and injuries started,” he added.

“Every Grand Tour I have done after has been one step forward. The body doesn’t change in six months and it’s harder with injuries. It hasn’t been easy because the body needed time to adapt.

“But more than the body, I need to get the confidence back, get the head where it should be.

“I don’t know about genetics and ages and that stuff, I’m not a doctor or medic, but I do know that I feel young. I turned 31 last month but I feel as I did 10-12 years ago.”

Currently training at an altitude of 2,400m before he returns to Europe in March to begin his season racing at the Volta a Catalunya, País Vasco and the Ardennes Classics, Chaves is reluctant to set specific time frames and instead offers a pragmatic view.

“It’s impossible to know how the body will respond and what will happen,” he said. “I wish that we could set a year or a goal and can say in one year, in six months, in five years. I wish.

“But it’s not like this and this is the beauty of life. It’s a question mark and it makes you fight every day.

“If you know in five years you will do this, it’s boring. This is life, this is why it’s beautiful and awesome because we have no idea.

“We have to keep working, keep fighting and pass through all of these moments - good, bad, lonely. And when the results arrive it will be awesome. If you don’t enjoy this process then you’re f***ed.

“You need to enjoy the process and learn a lot, not just the numbers, results, and objectives. But this perspective comes with a lot of maturity and experiences in your life.”

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After he’s made his bow for the season, he and the team will decide whether he should target the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France, with selection for the Olympic road race a target thereafter.

“I have the belief that it is the big dream for every single athlete in the world to be on the startline in the Olympic Games,” he said. “We have five spots, a really strong team, and the goal at first is just to be there.”

Does the course in Tokyo offer him a chance of winning and improving on his 21st at the 2016 Rio Games? Patience, once more, is the game.

“It’s too early to talk about that,” he said. “It’s a one-day race, a lot of things can happen and it depends on how you approach the race, your progression.”

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Chris Marshall-Bell

Chris first started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2013 on work experience and has since become a regular name in the magazine and on the website. Reporting from races, long interviews with riders from the peloton and riding features drive his love of writing about all things two wheels.

Probably a bit too obsessed with mountains, he was previously found playing and guiding in the Canadian Rockies, and now mostly lives in the Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees where he’s a ski instructor in the winter and cycling guide in the summer. He almost certainly holds the record for the most number of interviews conducted from snowy mountains.