THE Colombian kangaroo has returned from a nightmare year with his trademark smile intact – and he tells RON REED he is ready to show his many Australian fans that he is back in business:
AUSTRALIAN SPORTS fans are not especially known for enthusiastically adopting athletes from elsewhere but the “Colombian kangaroo” is an exception.
That’s why Esteban Chaves will be the centre of attention in a field of more than 100 cyclists when the 65th edition of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour begins with a helter-skelter 1.6km time trial in Southbank on Wednesday evening, followed by four other stages ending at Warrnambool, Ballarat, Nagambie and Kinglake.
He may or may not be the trump card for his team, Mitchelton Scott, which also contains last year’s winner Damien Howson, another former winner in Cameron Meyer, recently-crowned national road champion Alex Edmondson and the experienced and talented Michael Hepburn, as well as young stars Robert Power and Lucas Hamilton.
Team director Matt Wilson, himself a former winner of Victoria’s biggest and most famous stage race, declined to nominate their best chance or to elaborate on strategies, and even if he did you would probably be wise to keep in mind that they deliberately kept one of their guns, Daryl Impey, as far under the radar as they could before the Tour Down Under. In fact, Impey was always their main man and duly saluted, beating BMC star Richie Porte on a countback when they dead-heated against the General Classification clock.
With race director (and Sportshounds’ cycling guru) John Trevorrow confident he has designed the toughest challenge in recent memory, Mitchelton-Scott’s tactics will be a fascinating feature especially as they have not included their most prolific stage winner in recent years, sprinter Caleb Ewan, who will have bigger fish by far to fry when the European season starts – he will contest the Tour de France for the first time.
“In general we have depth of numbers, a multitude of guys, so I won’t single out only one, or say how we’re going to go about it,” said Wilson, playing his best dead bat.
What can be said for certain is that Mitchelton-Scott will be having a fair dinkum crack at taking out the title for the fourth time in five years – Simon Clarke and Meyer won in 2014-15 – because team owner Gerry Ryan is also the race sponsor, through his caravan empire, and always wants to win his own race.
Chaves, 28, from Bogota, is one of the boss’s favourite riders. That’s partly because he has come closer than anyone to winning one of the three Grand Tours for the team, running second in the Italian Giro and third in the Spanish Vuelta two years ago.
It’s partly because of his permanent smile and engaging, upbeat, optimistic personality, which is a great advertisement for the team, not to mention the courage he showed in overcoming serious injuries sustained in a horror crash in 2013. “I saw 10 doctors and nine told me I would never ride a bike again – but you have to believe,” he said.
When he was runner-up to experienced Italian Vincenzo Nibali in the Giro, he told this column, in an interview published in the Herald Sun, that he was getting so much positive feedback from Australia, where he had never raced, that he would consider himself to be “the Colombian kangaroo”.
It looked to be only a matter of time before he became an authentic international star. But last year was a massive reality check, his season wrecked by a knee injury and a crash that left him with broken bones. Off the bike he mourned a close friend who died suddenly.
But as Wilson – who more or less discovered him – and everyone else at the team formerly known as GreenEdge have always known, he is nothing if not resilient and now he is ready to bounce back as ebulliently as ever.
He has been training at Falls Creek for a month and resumed racing in last weekend’s Cadel Evans race, putting in a strong performance that had him out in front until 700m from the finish. “That was a very good sign, very encouraging,” he said.
This weekend’s event will be his first stage race as he once again sets off after the Giro and the Vuelta, with the Tour de France relegated to the back-burner for this year.
“Everything is OK, my body is good and I have been training well,” he said. Mentally, he is over the ordeal. “It’s like a circle, sometimes you are up and sometimes you are really down,” he told another interviewer recently.
“When you’re down it’s when you see the real champion. The big champions, they have the biggest, hardest moments.”
His so-near-yet-so-far moment at the Giro did not change his life significantly, he told Sportshounds – other than to confirm his philosophy that you have to enjoy the good times when you can.
“I still live in the same house, still catch the same train – I don’t have a private jet or a helicopter,” he laughed. Money was not an issue. “If you have $100 you spend 100, if you have $1 million, you spend a million, if you have $10 you spend 10,” he said.
“To have good memories, that is more important in life. You need always to keep your feet on the ground. This is a beautiful part of life, winning races, but in 10 years I will retire and I don’t want to get to the end and find it is no longer enjoyable for me to train.
“I want to be like Matt Hayman,” he says, nominating an Australian team-mate who is still going strong at age 39. “He is still enjoying the bike after all these years as a professional.
“These people around me, we are all athletes who work and train hard, we are all the same. I just hope I have a long, successful, enjoyable career and that I end up happy.”
According to Wilson, Chaves has retained his status as an Australian favourite despite more or less dropping out of sight last year. “Fans can be fickle when you’re not winning,” he said. “But Esteban is a very popular guy, no doubt about it.”
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.