“Neil Stephens called me at home one day in August 2013 and I thought it was a joke,” says Esteban Chaves, who was going through the worst weeks of his life. His right arm was paralysed and he was afraid he would never ride competitively again.
“I felt lost, forgotten. How could I have imagined that a WorldTour team would call me to tell me that, if I recovered, I would be riding for them?”
It was decided with Orica that Chaves would fly to Catalonia in October for testing, to see if he could still ride a bicycle. Sports director Neil Stephens called him regularly in Bogotá to ask about his progress: “For me, they were routine calls,” the Australian says. “Only later did I understand that the days I called were special for him.”
“Orica called and my motivation grew by a factor of three. I’d go to therapy and I’d be screaming,” Chaves says. “I’d do more in the gym than they were asking me to.” On the day of the tests, Chaves managed to clamber on a bike moving his right hand only with the help of the left.
“I could see that, even if he was still weak, it was much better than before, and I could also see that he was totally committed,” recalls Stephens. “I didn’t doubt him. We signed him up.”
It was October 2013, and Chaves felt like a cyclist again. “That is why I am so grateful to Orica. Winning races and achieving results is my way of saying thank you to a team that supported me through the hardest moments of my life. I want to be with them a long time because I owe them a huge amount,” Chaves promises.
Eight months earlier, Chavito had been close to death. At the GP Laigueglia, he hit a traffic sign. His hospital notes read: “Cranioencephalic trauma, pulmonary contusion, fracture to the incus bone in the right ear, malar complex fracture in the right cheek, basal skull fracture to the right sphenoid bone, fracture to the clavicle.”
He has no memory of the impact. His brain wiped all knowledge of the trauma from half an hour before the collision to five days later. In his right shoulder, the complex of nerves that runs from the neck to the fingers on his right hand was shattered.
On 15 May 2013, close to desperation, Chaves underwent a nine-hour operation that endeavoured to reconnect the nerves.“I’ll do the operation, but say your prayers, because you never know with nerves,” said the surgeon.
For three months, there was no improvement. Chaves began to have fears and doubts. “I tried to eat with my left hand and the food went everywhere. It brought me down,” he recalls. Then, one day in August 2013, six months after the accident, a routine EMG detected a response in his arm. It was almost imperceptible, but it meant that Chavito would be back.
“But I wasn’t back yet. For me, life is only riding my bike, and improving. I’m not the type you tell, ‘You’re going to be a star,’ and I believe you. It’s not about being important, it’s about having fun. I love cycling. I like it a lot because it’s a way of proving to everyone that dreams come true.
It’s not about winning races, being a star or however you want to put it. My main goal is to go beyond winning, to see the most important things in life. That’s what I want to show the world, especially the young.”
When you talk to this Bogotá-born rider about the differences between the culture and approach to life in his region, Cundinamarca, and Nairo Quintana’s Boyacá or Fernando Gaviria’s Antioquia, Chaves sidesteps the issue.
He doesn’t want to commit himself. “Ah! In Spain, if you compare a Basque with a Valencian, they are completely different types of people because their culture is different. It’s no different in Colombia. Colombia is very big. There are 46 million of us, the country is twice the size of Spain, and obviously there are different cultures and different regions…”
But there is something more.
All three have developed into excellent riders by virtue of discovering Europe, and being adopted by Europe, very young.
All three are fascinated by Europe, but while it can be said of Gaviria and Chaves that they want to be suffused in Europe, to feel European and to adopt its culture and their own, only Nairo insists on his attachment to his region, his roots, his Amerindian identity, his pride in his past and in being a Latin American conquistador in Europe.
Nairo and Chaves were born a month, two hundred kilometres, and a world apart. Nairo, laconic, inexpressive, with that leathery complexion, is his pride. Chavito is his smile.
The full version of this article appeared in Rouleur 17.5 under the title Esteban Chaves: Winning Smile. Translation by Matt Rendell.