When you take into consideration what Esteban Chaves has gone through in the last few years, you begin to realize that his is an amazing comeback story. Below is my interview with him about his awful crash, surgery and subsequent recovery. Doctors believed that Chaves would never ride a bike again, let alone race, which makes his performance at the Giro that much more impressive.
My conversation with Esteban Chaves starts with a bit of small talk. Eventually, we end up talking about the weather. I mention how terrible the winter was here, with insanely low temperatures and endless snow and ice. Esteban pauses for a bit, and in a calm voice tells me, "these things pass, it's always a matter of having patience, and waiting for the spring to come, because it's just around the corner."
His serious but calm demeanor is beyond that of idle chit chat. I quickly realize that if this last year has taught Esteban one thing, it's to be patient. His crash at the Trofeo Laigueglia in February of last year left him with a broken collarbone, head trauma, a fractured jaw, broken inner ear bones, a torn quadriceps, and then came the most serious injury: severe nerve damage, which led to him being away from racing for a full year. He also faced the likelihood of never racing or even riding a bike again.
Now with Orica-Green Edge after a successful and somewhat unexpected recovery, Esteban has started the season well, but knows that his recovery will take time, both mentally and physically. I spoke with Chavito—as his friends and family know him—about his year away from racing, the ups and downs he went through during that time, and his come back. Through the course of our conversation we touched on his family, playing Xbox, his emotional reaction to the Tour of Langkawi's queen stage, and why the doctors cut him up "like a plantain".
I know you've probably told the story a million times, but can you give me an idea of how your injuries happened in 2013, and what you remember of the whole ordeal?
The accident was in Italy on the 16 or 17th of February, I honestly don’t even remember at this point. After the accident, I spent four days in the hospital, of which I only remember one. Furthermore, my crash happened at the 130th kilometer of the race, but I only remember 100 kilometers of the race, so 30 kilometers are missing, gone. So from 100 kilometers into the race, my memory jumps ahead almost four days later. I don’t remember the accident itself at all.
And perhaps that’s for the best, don’t you think?
I do, I really do. What’s more, I hope that memory never, ever comes back. I hope it stays away forever.
You come from a tight-knit, Bogotano kind of family. At what point where you able to speak with your parents, and let them know how you were?
When I became conscious in the hospital, Oscar Pelicolli the director from Team Colombia was there with me. He explained what had happened, and was very kind to me. Right I away, I said, “I have to talk to my family, I have to speak with my parents to let them know how I’m doing.”
He looked at me a little funny when I said that, but handed me his cell phone so I could call my parents. I talked my dad, explained that I was in the hospital, that I had broken my collarbone, but that I’d be fine in the long run. I gave my dad all the details I had been told about my accident and my situation, and he listened intently, and went along with the conversation. But it turned out that this was maybe the fourth of fifth time that I had spoken with him already, and I’d told him the same thing that many times!
My god, to be honest with you, it’s funny now. But at the same time, I can’t imagine the reality of being a father, and then getting the fifth long distance call from your son, who is obviously injured to the point that he's lost all memory, and doesn’t realize he’s told you the same thing five times already.
Absolutely, I think back now, and it seems funny as hell. But wow, I can’t imagine my father picking up the phone once again, and having me tell him the exact same story for the third, fourth or fifth time. It’s just crazy.
When you were released from the hospital in Italy, how do you eventually make it back to Colombia, and under what circumstances does that all happen?
I was released from the hospital, and then spent several days in the home of Alessandro and Angelica, a couple in Italy who more or less adopted all the riders from Team Colombia. She’s from Colombia, and married an Italian, and they live in the same town as all the guys from Team Colombia. She befriended some of us, after she saw us out training in our kit, and wanted to talk to us right away. After that, they would pick us up in the airport, do favors for us, and help us out.
So I spent days in their home after being released from the hospital, with them caring for me. Because of the brain trauma, and the fracture in my inner ear, I would get dizzy quickly and loose my balance. So they had me in their home, they let me sleep in their bed, while they stayed on the couch, and they fed me, helped bathe me, and change my clothes. It was really a beautiful thing they did for me, because I couldn’t fend for myself at all due to the injuries. Once the swelling in my brain went down, I had surgery on my collarbone, and that’s when I eventually made it back to Colombia.
And that’s when things really took a turn.
At first, things seemed fine. I went to see Dr. Castro in Bogota. He said things were looking good, that I had to wait for the collarbone to fuse, but as he asked me to move my arm in different directions, I showed him how I couldn’t really raise my right arm too well. He put his finger behind my arm, working his way toward my elbow and asked if I could feel his finger. I told him "no". His facial expression changed. He was concerned, and he told me, “Damn, I think you have torn nerves, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s do an EMG and see how it looks.”
Sure enough, the EMG showed damage to the nerves. Complete tear in the auxiliary nerve, partial tear in the suprascapular nerve.
And did you know the gravity of the situation and the injury?
No, of course not. You hear that, and your own ignorance keeps you from realizing the severity of the diagnosis. But when I talked to Dr. Castro, everything changed. He’s an amazing guy, insanely funny, always joking around, but when he saw the images, he became really serious. He explained the injury to me, and told me that honestly, there was a possibility that I might never fully recover from it. That it might never heal. That I could be done for. That’s when you go home, and you Google the injury, and you read up, and you find out about these horrible scenarios, and you drive yourself insane reading all this information, and looking at these images.
But the doctor told me to take is slow, to try physical therapy, to see if things could improve. He really urged me to stay positive, and work at it, taking my time, and to relax. He kept telling me to not stop smiling, and I really tried to stick to that.
And did the nerve damage improve with therapy?
I thought so at first. I was doing 6 to 8 hours of therapy every day, and movement was improving. After 8 weeks, we did another EMG, and it looked exactly the same. No change at all. The news hit me so hard, it was just horrible. I was crushed, because now I knew what it meant. I knew of all the cases of people who never recovered, and I felt it was all over for me as a cyclist. It was over. Around those days, I tried to ride my bike, and even going over a small speed bump was impossible. I didn’t have the strength to keep the handlebars straight; it would throw me off the bike. I couldn’t stand up on the pedals either.
I went to Italy for a second opinion, but the results were the same. The only difference, and perhaps this is indicative of how different we Colombians are from Europeans, is that the Italian doctors were more laid back. They thought this could wait, maybe another two months or so. But my doctors in Colombia thought it was imperative that they operate quickly, and that time was of the essence.
And that’s the way you decided to go.
Right. We all talked it over, and it was decided to go to Colombia, and have the surgery on May 30th. So that was three months after the accident. It was a 9-hour surgery, and as the doctor said, they opened me up like a damn plantain! [The doctor’s reference is beautifully Colombian, and was made due tothe radical and almost violent way that you open up a green plantain before frying it to make patacon, in particular because of how tough yet brittle the skin can be].
So they opened me up, and went very, very deep because the nerves are about as thick as a human hair, and deep in your body.
Oh god, now I’m getting grossed out thinking of you being opened up like a damned plantain, and them looking for these tiny nerves that look like human hairs. It's just awful.
(Laughs) Right, and even just cutting into the muscle, to find one just one nerve is tough. But finding four ends of the nerves, to tie them back up is just absurd. One was easy, the other one in my back was badly damaged. Think of it like a wire, if it’s pulled and it brakes, it becomes frayed.
Oh, now I’m picturing a frayed brake cable on my bike. Which is worse.
Yes! Exactly! So they had to cut off the bad, frayed parts, and connect them to the good end. But because of the damage, they were 3 centimeters short. So they had to go into my foot, open it up, and take out a part of a nerve there, to make the ends meet. It was a purely Colombian way of doing things, not giving up, and making due with what they could. The surgeon, Dr. Sandoval, knows me, knows my family, and never thought for a second of closing me up and being done with the ordeal. He knows I’m a professional cyclist, and without putting much thought into the matter, went into my foot. I’m sure the Italian surgeons were very professional, and very good, but I was happy that I was in Colombian with a doctor I knew. Thank god, everything worked out.
So you come out of surgery, and you start recovering, as your team is at the Giro d’Italia. It must have been heartbreaking for you, to think you were going to do a grand tour, to have your team be invited, and instead you’re at home, not knowing if you’ll ever really get back on the bike.
It was awful. Crushing. It was really hard. I watched most stages, and during many of them, I was just dejected. Just sad, because riding a grand tour was a huge dream for me, and all that needed to happen was for time to pass. The team was chosen, I had a slot in the Giro squad, all that needed to happen was for the days to pass. And instead, I’m in bed, in Bogota, not knowing if I’ll ever race again. So I was watching my friends, my teammates, racing the Giro, and I was happy for them, and that they were doing well, but it was so insanely hard for me as well.
Even beyond the Giro, what was your recovery like mentally? Being home, not riding your bike and not training for the first time in many years?
It was hard, yes. But at the same time, it was like…if you’ll forgive the profanity, “fuck, let’s get up, let’s get to work, and let’s get beyond this whole thing.” So, even though it was hard, I always tried to stay positive. Of course, I did need the support of my family, because there were days when I didn’t want to get up, and didn’t see things so clearly. They helped cheer me up, and distract me. Same with my girlfriend, Nata, who really was instrumental in the process, along with my brother, who would help keep me busy, even if it was just a matter of playing Xbox, to keep me upbeat.
What’s your game of choice on the Xbox?
We always play football, the FIFA game, and we bet each other whenever we play.
In that game, you can play with Colombian teams. Being that you’re from Bogota, do you play with Millonarios, Santa Fe, or La Equidad?
(Laughs) No no, I play with Chelsea or sometimes Real Madrid.
What? What kind of Bogotano are you? You have to support your local team! Millonarios! You have to play with Millonarios!
No way! We don’t want to play with those Colombian teams, they are so slow in the game when you compare them to Chelsea or Real Madrid. They just play and run so slow…they’re awful.
So, it’s actually a realistic game then!
(Laughs) Yes! Yes! It’s just like in real life! (laughs)
But were you a Santa Fe or Millonarios supporter growing up in Bogota? The city was always split down the middle, though now there are more teams.
Nah, I never liked football. In fact, I still don’t, aside from playing on the Xbox with my brother. I mean, I played briefly with my cousin as a kid, but it drove me crazy. I always wanted to swim, to run track and then cycling, because my dad was always so into cycling. So at 13, I found cycling, and ever since then, that’s been my life.
Because cycling has been your life since you were 13, and you’ve been so devoted to it, was it hard to adapt to the relative banality of“civilian” life during your recovery? I mean, it’s not that life away from the bike is so new to you, but such a long break must have been odd. You have been so focused on just one thing for much of your life, that time away must have seemed very different.
It did, in part because, in my mind, I was still thinking about racing again. So I had a foot on each side of that divide, and not training, was very strange. For example, on a Sunday in Bogota, the sun would be shinning beautifully, it would be 10am, and I’d be in bed, unable to ride or go out. That’s unthinkable to me, it’s so foreign! But in the long run, you start to value riding your bike so much afterwards, because you remember that feeling, how hollow and empty you can feel on a day like that.
And when are you able to finally ride a bike again?
As part of physical therapy at first, I was on a spinning bike, or on a trainer at first. But I finally rode my bike for real five weeks after the surgery. I could tell the difference right away.
And what was that first ride like?
It was 40 minutes, but I honestly came home very tired, like I had been out 7 hours or more. I was exhausted, but at the same time I was the happiest I had been in such a long time. I was like a kid opening up Christmas presents, just beside myself.
And from that epic 40-minute ride, and realizing that you can in fact use your arm once again, how do you arrive at signing a contract with Orica-Green Edge, and getting back into the pro ranks?
It was mid-year. My first contact with them was through Neil Stephens, who had seen me race at the Tour de l’Avenir when I won there, since he was directing the Australian team back then. He had also seen me race later on, at the Vuelta a Burgos, where I won the queen stage with Team Colombia. He was aware that I didn’t have a contract for 2014, so he reached out to me after getting my number from Rigoberto Uran. I told him my situation, about the surgery, that I hadn’t been racing at all, but he put me at ease right away. He knew I needed time, and didn’t hesitate to tell me that if I needed anything in terms of therapy, money, or travel for anything, to simply ask because the team would be there for me. They did want to see me on the bike though, right before the world championships. So I traveled to Girona, they saw me on the bike, and right away they said, “Man, done deal. We’re signing you right away.”
Did it go as far as checking your wattage, VO2 max or anything like that, considering that you’d been off the bike for so long?
No, they wanted to just see me on the bike, to make sure I was doing okay. I had been sending them my medical information, all the stuff about the surgery. They just wanted to know that I could ride a bike again, and they felt that my form would come back with time. And that, by the way, still holds true. I’m still having to come around after a year away from racing.
How was this all handled with Team Colombia?
Claudio Corti was clear with me, about the fact that I’d always have a home there, and he’d never close the door on me coming back if I wanted to, but he wanted the best for me. I was very clear with him about the offer from Orica, and it all went very well.
From the time you were 13, you’ve only raced with Colombians as teammates. Then, you became a professional, and went to Europe, but you did so with a Colombian team. A team that, having been around them at the Giro, is thoroughly Colombian in every way, despite the fact that the staff is Italian. So now, you’re with Orica-Green Edge, an Australian team. Have you noticed the cultural shift? How has that change been for you?
The structure and organization of both teams is the same, so that’s no different. But culturally, yes there’s a difference. I’ve always been in Colombian teams, and most of my teammates have been the same guys around me since I was 18 or 19 years old in Colombia Es Pasion. So I changed teams, went to Europe, but I was still around the same group of guys. So to change teams, and come into an environment where everyone has their friends already, they have their roommates, and on top of that you don’t speak English…it’s hard, for sure. But see, Australians are extremely friendly. They have been very kind to me, and have been very welcoming. They teach me words, they help me, and explain things to me. I’ve found really kind people in this team who help me all the time.
Who has been your roommate?
In the first training camp, my roommate was Sam Bewley. He was also at the Tour of Langkawi, and he lives in Girona as well. At that race, my roommate was Brett Lancaster, and he speaks Italian because he raced with Italian teams, so we were able to talk, and he was my roommate again for the Volta a Catalunya.
Realistically, keeping in mind that you’re coming back into racing, what do you think your year will look like, and what are your goals?
I started talking to the directors here in the team last year, and we’re going about this year in a slow and methodical way. First order of business is to once again be comfortable at races, to feel good riding in the peloton. To feel good in descents. If it starts to rain, to not feel stressed out or worried.
Then another big goal is doing the Vuelta a España. If I do well, by which I mean finishing up in the top 20 or something, then that’s good. But if I’m able to finish 80th or something, that’s okay too. I have to give things time to come along, and it would be my first grand tour as well. So this year will help us figure out what kind of training I need to do, where my body and my form really are. That’s the priority. So we’re doing the Vuelta to see where I stand. But this is a long-term plan in a way. I have to be calm, and take my time.
And yet, in Langkawi, you did very well in the queen stage. You were fourth, which was just amazing.
It was, it felt great! But at the same time, it doesn’t mean I’m ready to go do the Tour de France. Recovery is slow, so we keep working at it.
Your first race back was Mallorca. How did you feel mentally, and how were your legs?
That race was tough, because I was very afraid to be riding in the peloton. It was very scary. We had strong winds in one stage, then bad rain, so it was tough. But after that, I went to Malasya for the Tour of Langkawi. That race is different. Roads were wider, there was no side wind, so I felt better.
And how was that? How did that race go, and how did the queen stage unfold? Were you actively trying to test your legs that day?
Our plan that day was to work for Pieter Weening. So I went in the break, thinking we’d be caught and I could help Pieter. But the break was too big, and we stayed away. I was in there with Brett Lancaster, who really took care of me, and put me at ease. We started to climb, and riders start to drop off one by one. I didn’t even realize it, until I looked around with 5k to go, and there were only eight of us left. I couldn’t believe it! But I felt good, in part because when you’re in the midst of that effort, you don’t analyze how everything feels all that much. Because once I crossed the line, I was just destroyed. I had horrible cramps, and I was just dead.
Tour of Langkawi, Stage 4 highlights
What about mentally? How did it feel to be back racing, and to do that well in a stage with a mountain top finish?
Well, I finished that stage and went to a little mini-bus that the team had, so I could change. I got there, and it suddenly hit me. I started to cry, I just broke down. I lost it. It was a year’s worth of emotions coming out of me. I thought back to where I had been a year before, and where I was at that moment. Back racing, doing so well in a climb, it felt huge. It was very emotional. So I sat there, changing out of my kit, crying.
You did an interview after that stage, where you mentioned wanting to do well for the team, as a thank you for them taking a chance on you during a tough time.
Yes. Very few teams would give a contract to a guy like me, a guy who may not be able to really be a professional cyclist again, someone whose future is unknown. They trusted me, and they had the guts to take me on. So I have to thank them, and of course I have to thank my family, my girlfriend, Team Colombia, Coldeportes, everyone. For me, this second chance I’ve been given allows me the opportunity to just thank everyone for their help.
As part of changing teams, you’ve moved to Girona, and away from Italy where all your old teammates are. That’s another big change, and one that I know Darwin Atapuma didn’t want to take on when he signed on with BMC. He’s still living with all the Team Colombia guys. How do you feel in Girona?
You know, Australian riders really like Girona. They like it because it’s great for training, and as a result, the team has a small facility here with a car, with bikes, and one of the directors lives there too, along with one of the doctors, and a physiotherapist. All of that is right there in Girona. So it made sense. Plus, for me, it’s a direct flight from Bogota to Barcelona. From there, I take a high-speed train to Girona, which takes all of 40 minutes. It’s so easy when you compare it to living in Italy, where you have to catch several flights just to get home to Bogota. Plus, I like Spain. It’s really beautiful here, although in Italy, there’s a greater passion for cycling. But training here is good. Drivers are respectful, there are a million roads to choose from, as is the case all over Europe, so it’s just a matter of adapting.
After your crash, you are recovering. That includes building your confidence back up, what do you make of the fact that many fans in Colombia don’t seem to get how the sport works. I say this in reference to the fact that fans, even knowledgeable ones, appear to think that every race you enter, you should win. They fail to see how riders build their form, and have peaks they shoot for. For example, I saw several comments about Nairo Quintana having “lost” at Tirreno Adriatico, even though he may not have been targeting that race, and mentioned that he had to slow his training down a bit, because he came into the season too strong, too early in San Luis. But still, they say he “lost” that race.
(Laughs) Nairo lost in Italy! Wow (laughs). Yes, I’ve heard that kind of talk. It’s nonsense, so I don’t pay any attention to it. Someone may say that because I was fourth in Malasya, I’m back and could or should be on the podium in a race like Catalunya or something like that. But I don’t pay attention to that stuff. I know how these things work. I go about it slowly and peacefully. And that’s how I live my life. I work hard, and I know that through that hard work, and patience, good things come. And that’s the only way to go about living, and the only way to take on this sport. You work hard at it, and you keep in mind that nothing comes fast and easily. Nothing worthwhile does.