Esteban Chaves at Memorial Marco Pantani 2012
The history of Colombian cycling can neatly and easily be divided into two halves: before the the Tour de l'Avenir in 1980, and after. Though brave riders like Cochise Rodriguez and Giovanni Jimenez had raced successfully in Europe before then, it was not until Alfonso Florez won the general classification at the Tour de l'Avenir in 1980, that Colombian cycling truly left its mark in Europe. For this reason, l'Avenir has always been held in high regard within Colombian cycling circles. Not only is it a prestigious race, but in the mind of Colombians, it's proven to be a sign of things to come. A promise of what might be.
In 2010, a full thirty years after Alfonso Florez was victorious in France, Nairo Quintana won the Tour de l'Avenir, making him the first Colombian to do so since Martin Ramirez (1985). The year after, it was Esteban Chaves' turn to win the race. Suddenly, things began turn for Colombian cycling. And Esteban Chaves—a rider from Bogota whose incredibly youthful face reveals little about his abilities or tenacity—was at the center of it all.
Today, as the newly renamed
(Colombia-Coldeportes last season) prepares to field the first all-Colombian team at the Giro in twenty years, Chaves is once again the center of attention, as one of the riders in the team with the highest potential to bring glory to the South American country. Speaking with Chaves as he relaxed in his family's home in Bogotá, it became obvious that "Chavito", as he's affectionately known, understands the historical significance of his team being invited to the Giro. It's also clear that he relishes the fact that he will compete at the Italian grand tour while wearing the flag and name of his country on his jersey, instead of a random phone company or bank as part of their marketing program for the year.
As Esteban and his teammates prepare for what will be a grueling but important season, we spoke about the Giro, Colombian foods, the camaraderie that exists among all Colombian professionals in Europe, and about the lofty but realistic goals of his newly founded cycling academy.
A family affair. Esteban with his mom and dad.
What first attracted you to cycling when you were a kid?
My dad has always been a big supporter of the sport, and he grew up during the time of the great Colombian
like Lucho Herrera, and Fabio Parra. Even though he never raced, he always followed the sport, went to races, and was always around cycling. Once he married my mom, and he was done with his studies, he had more time, and finally began to train and ride more seriously. He began to race in the masters category, and did races like the masters Vuelta a Colombia. So for me, it was always there. I started going to races with my mom, so we could see my dad from the time I was three or four years old.
In the beginning, I raced track and field. One day, the club I was in had a biathlon. So my dad borrowed a bike through
, and oddly enough, I did much better in the cycling portion, than the running!
A young Chaves (left), racing for the Bike House team in the Vuelta del Porvenir
And this was after just a little bit of training on the bike?
No! Actually, that was the first time I was really riding a bike in a serious way. So I fell in love with cycling. I asked my dad if we could maybe buy that bike, and that's where the real passion for cycling started for me. I was fourteen years old then.
And from there, how did you take the next steps in cycling? I ask because in Colombia, there's a formal way that you come up in through the sport, through academies.
Right. I became a member of the Monserrate cycling academy, which happened to have their headquarters in the velodrome not too far from my house. There, I learned the basics. How to race on the track, how to pick up coins from the ground, how to stretch, how to train, and those types of things. I started going to local races in and around Bogota, and the next year I was more serious, since I started racing in the next age category [15-16]. That meant that I could race and train with the team from the city of Bogota, and I qualified to represent the city at nationals.
Team Colombia is unusual, in that you are racing for a trade team, but it's also a national team of sorts, sponsored by the country's government. Does the nature of the team seem unusual or different to you?
For me, it's really special. It's something I hold dear. When I'm out there, when I race, I'm not representing a phone company, a supermarket, or a manufacturer of flooring tiles. I'm out there—and we're all out there—representing an entire nation and its people. That's something that I carry in my heart, but also on my shoulders. It's something I take very seriously, and something that makes me work much harder as a result. It changes everything.
Is that something you were aware of when the team started, or is it something you became aware of throughout the last season?
It developed through the season, and that's in part because wherever we went, people singled us out as Colombians…in a good way. At races, for example, everyone says "there's the Colombians!", "Hey Cafe De Colombia!", "Lucho Herrera!", "the
!". Us being there reminded them of a positive connection they had and still have with Colombia. We are part of that, and we represent that legacy, and the whole country that brought that legacy about.
Chaves, Lucho Herrera and Claudio Corti in Bogota
What does that sense of representing a country, it's people, and that legacy translate into?
It means that you behave a certain way, because you are this representative for a whole nation. It means you do give it your all, because you're not doing it for yourself, but your actions have a greater meaning. In a way, what others are doing is marketing for a company, and that's one thing. What we are doing, is showing another side—a positive side—of our country to the rest of the world. That's our goal.
Speaking of showing that positive side to the rest of the world, the team just learned last week that you've been invited to the Giro. You'll be the first all-Colombian team to ride the Giro in twenty years. How does that affect your training, and what does that mean for your season?
Well, we had started our pre-season work with that goal in mind. Claudio [Corti] told us that the primary goal was the Giro. We waited for the day when they announced the wild card teams, knowing that the Tour of California would happen at the same time. So either way, the training plan, and the races we'd do in the early season would stay the same.
Besides the initial excitement of getting to do the Giro, have you thought in particular about the route? Are there any stages that get your attention?
I was there when they presented the route, and the stage that got my attention was the one that finishes at Tre Cime di Lavaredo [stage 20].
Where Lucho won in '89, a beautiful finish!
I've seen the videos of it, of the last time they used that climb, and it gets my attention. I'm not saying that it's a primary objective, or that it's one I'd be out to get. It's just one that I like, and looks fantastic.
Herrera wins at Tre Cime di Lavaredo
What is your current training schedule like in Bogotá?
We're taking advantage of the weather here in Colombia right now. We have no snow, or extreme cold, or anything to get in the way of us getting the necessary training in. Me personally, I like to train early, so I'm out at 5:30 or 6am, depending on the amount of miles I'm putting in that day. My goal is to always to be back exactly in time for lunch. So right now, we're just doing base miles. Three, four, or five hours, always working but not going to the limit. Just building a base for the rest of the season, lots of kilometers.
Last year, how did you adapt to the cold of northern Italy at the beginning of the season, as well as the snow. Both were probably very foreign to you.
It was really hard for all of us. It hit us very hard. Just imagine, here in Bogota, maybe it will get down to 45 degrees (8 Celsius) for forty minutes. But in Italy, we'd be well below freezing for twenty-four hours. But that's life, and that's cycling. Because the reality is that cycling happens in Europe, so we have to get used to Europe, and that includes the cold of the early season. But that's something you learn from, and stays with you.
The start of the season last year was very hard for the team. The biggest races you were invited to happened so early on. Do you think you'll benefit from what you learned last year about Europe this time around?
Of course. This time around, we know to go to Italy with more kilometers in our legs, because it's hard to train there early in the year. Even little things, like knowing the right clothing to wear, what time go out to train. These may seem like small lessons, but you have to live through them to learn.
Who do you normally train with in Colombia?
I always go out with
[former world champion on the track, who joins the team this season, he's on Twitter
Does he live near you in Bogotá?
Yes, and we get along really well, so that's who I'm always training with.
What's your favorite training route around Bogota?
I have an established training loop that does wonders for me. It's hard to explain why, perhaps it's psychological. I go up over
, toward Villeta and back up the Alto de la Tribuna. That's about 110 miles (180kms), including a nice 25-mile (40km) climb. That's what we're doing three times a week. I'm not sure why, but once I start doing that loop, my form advances very quickly. My body responds very positively to it.
This graphic shows length of each climb, not overall altitude gain. Note that El Vino is third in length.
Early last year, I spoke with
, and the way that he told me how far along his form was, was by telling me his time up to Patios. That's the classic climb in Bogota that everyone seems to gauge his or her fitness by. Do you do that also? Are you currently using it in your training?
, but I only do it on weekdays. There's too much car traffic on weekends, even though cars really do respect cyclists there, despite what some people will tell you. But I haven't timed myself up to Patios in about four years, because when I'm here in Bogota, I'm always just doing base miles. But the last time I timed it, it was 17:32, or 17.33.
Giro di Padania, stage 4
This past season, your form really came around toward the end, and you had some important victories. How did your stage win at the Vuelta a Burgos come about. Did you know that Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao would be attacking?
That was a beautiful day. I had spoken with Rigo briefly at the start. He told me to stay alert, because they would be attacking on that last climb, from the base.
Did you talk to Rigoberto or Sergio at all once things got going on that last climb?
Not really, everyone was really focused by then, because the attacks started.
How did you feel?
I felt very good physically, but there was another thing happening. At one moment, about two kilometers from the base, I looked around the group. There was twenty of us total in the group, and nine of us were Colombian! It was beautiful. That filled my heart with pride, and made me want to go even harder.
Beautiful! In the end, you won the stage, Sergio was second on the day, and he nearly took the overall.
Right. In the last 800 meters, Dani Moreno put in a huge dig, and Sergio lost the race by only ten seconds I think. On the podium, I could tell that Sergio was down as a result. He was so close. But even with that, he was very happy for us. He knew that we, as a team, had a tough start to the season. So he was thrilled, and he was second also, so it was a great day for Colombia.
Vuelta a Burgos
I'm still thinking about what you said, in regards to looking around the group and feeling a great sense of pride because so many Colombians were there in such a select group.
It's true, it's really something that has a great effect on you. There's a great sense of camaraderie between all the Colombian riders across all teams. We may not all know each other really well, we may not all be best friends, but there's an amazing connection there. I don't doubt for a minute that if I ever need anything, one of them would always happily help me out in any way they can. Even in the context of a race, if you ever need something as simple as a water bottle, a Colombian rider from another team will never deny that request.
I guess it's what happens when you're the lone Colombians, racing half way around the world in such foreign places.
Exactly, it's beautiful. And you know, something really amazing started to happen in the races toward the end of the season. In races like the Giro dell'Emilia [which Nairo Quintana won], the Giro del Piemonte [which was won by Rigoberto Uran], and Milano-Torino. Every Colombian…no matter what team they were in…would come to our bus before they race. We'd all sit there, and drink our coffee together. We had all been racing together for the whole season, had done the World Championships, so it developed naturally. It became an unspoken thing that happened every time. All of us in the team would be sitting on the bus, and Uran would come, Henao would come in, as well as Anacona, Sarmiento. Everyone! They'd come in, we'd drink our coffee and chat before the start. It was great to be there with all of them.
At the Tour presentation in Paris
You just started a cycling academy, which bears your name. How did the project come about, and why did you want to start an academy?
Well, the original idea wasn't mine actually. It came from the trainer of the academy, Marco Tulio Ruiz. He has a son that races, and is good friends with my brother, who races as well. They wanted to start and academy, and Marco Tulio started the necessary paperwork to do so. When the time came to pick a name, they couldn't agree on one, and the kids said they wanted to name it after me. I was in Europe at the time, and my brother asked me how I felt about it. He told me that my dad would be part of the academy as well, and I really liked the idea. That was in July or August.
Esteban with some of the academy's riders at the Luis Carlos Galan velodrome
How many kids are in the academy?
Just under thirty. Twenty-eight I think. It started as a group of friends, and grew to take on kids who were not members of an academy already, as well as kids that my dad and my brother would meet at local races and training rides. There are also few of them, boys and girls, who come from speed skating and want to try out cycling.
You mentioned earlier the responsibility that you feel regarding how you act and present yourself as an ambassador of sorts for Colombia. Do you feel a similar responsibility in terms the kids in the academy, and how they see you, since the academy is named after you?
Oh yes, of course. I'm very aware of that, and aware of the fact that I have to set a good example. They can't just see me out drinking coffee on the side of the road when I should be training. It's little things like that as well, but in general, you become aware of the fact that you're setting an example. I'm simply not able to get to know every single member of the academy, but if I see one of them out training, I make sure to talk to them, see how they are doing, and how their training is going. I give them advice, and make sure to check in on them.
file of the
Club Esteban Chaves
Do you ever train with them? I guess it's difficult, since you have a set training schedule.
When I was first back in Colombia I did go out with them a few times. But then they had races, then the holidays came, and I haven't been back out with them.
In your opinion, what can the kids in your cycling academy gain from cycling beyond simple fitness? In other words, what's the effect that you hope sport can have in their lives?
Aside from fitness and sport, cycling teaches you about a lifestyle. If you are a serious cyclist at one point, and you ever stop riding, you'll still be a disciplined person. Someone who works hard, who won't be staying up late, partying, but will wake up early to work hard. So that's the ultimate goal, to make them into better people, because that's what cycling is capable of, and what can improve their lives down the line.
Speaking of the need to set a good example, how do you see the doping issue in Colombia? It's a topic that no one I talk to really wants to discuss at all.
I don't know just how much you're aware of, but that's a serious topic. It's a delicate and serious subject, mostly because of the older riders. But I do feel strongly about the fact that with our team, as well as what was accomplished with Colombia Es Pasion, things will begin to change [Team Colombia is part of the biological passport program, and Colombia Es Pasion was the lone Colombian team with a bio passport program of its own, since no teams racing in Colombia are required to have one]. So I speak with my brother about that subject, and I make sure to tell kids, and be clear with them about never taking that path.
A young Esteban representing Bogota.
Do you think Team Colombia can be part of a positive change in that regard?
Yes. Consider something as simple as this: Claudio Corti needs Colombian riders. The team needs them. But we need to know, with all certainty
that they are clean. We need to know their past.
So the team becomes an end goal that Colombian riders can aspire to… and can only reach if they are clean?
Right. And that didn't exist before. So now, the
, which is also sponsored by Coldeportes, will start its own biological passport program as well. That means that our team can hire riders from Colombia-Claro, and know their passport information. So that team, like ours, becomes one that riders want to be in because of the greater opportunities they'll get. There's also the the
, which has a passport program as well. So I really feel strongly about the fact that things are changing.
When you live in Italy through the season, what's the thing you miss the most about Colombia?
The warmth of the people here, I miss that terribly. In Europe, people keep to themselves, and seldom talk to you. You can go into a store, and they won't even talk to you. Here, you're used to going to the store, seeing…let's say...Don Pepito and asking him about his family, his life. Everyone talks here, and there's a warm atmosphere.
What food do you miss the most when you're in Europe?
What kind of rice,
or something like that?
No, just rice in general. They have rice there, of course, but they prepare it differently, and you mostly end up eating pasta anyway. Here, I eat rice everyday!
Live news broadcast from Esteban's family home in Bogota, after he won the the Tour d l'Avenir in 2011
I have other important questions in regards to Colombian food.
Chocolate, I like chocolate so
Energy bar or
with, or without cheese?
During races, no cheese. At home, always with a little cheese.
Aside from races, do you also eat
Here in Colombia, always. In Europe also, but as much as you can take
there, you still go through it very quickly. So it runs out.
, or a powdered hydration mix of some kind?
I used to go out with
all the time, but over time, preparing it ahead of time became tedious. So now, I mostly use a hydration powder.
We Colombians tend to be superstitious. Cyclists even more so. Is there anything you are superstitious about?
I don't like using new kit for the first time during a race.
Is that because of something that happened to you in the past?
No, it's just a superstition I have. I don't want to wear something for the first time, and then crash with it on. So I never wear anything new, not even gloves or socks.
Anyone else in the team have any such superstition?
I don't really know…and come to think of it, they don't know about my superstition either.
G.P. Camaiore (Photo: Delmati)
What do you like to do in your spare time away from the bike?
I like watching movies, and I like to read, mostly when I'm in Europe more so than here in Colombia. I like to read
What do you want people to know about Colombia, that they may not already know?
It may sound like a cliché, because it's been said before…but I'd like people to know that Colombia is not what it was during the 1980s, that time of violence, drugs and guerrillas. We're beyond that, and we're a place full of kind and generous people, full of culture and amazing things that everyone should come experience.
You can follow Esteban on Twitter
His cycling academy is on Facebook
Team Colombia on