Chaves racing for pink — and a special surprise

Orica team backer says he might have a special prize for Chaves, a rider he praises for his character, positive attitude, and gratitude.

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PINEROLO, Italy (VN) — A special prize awaits Esteban Chaves, pending his strong Giro d’Italia showing that will all come to an end on Sunday. And it is not necessarily the race winner’s pink jersey.

Although, if Chaves, 26, can take that from the current race leader Steven Kruijswijk during the Giro’s final two mountain stages through the Alps on Friday and Saturday, rest assured the diminutive Colombian can expect to be flooded with as many gifts and rewards as he will be with plaudits.

But within the ‘family’ that his Orica – GreenEdge team has become, since the Bogota rider started riding for them in 2014, there may be a secret bonus reward from the Australian WorldTour team’s owner, Australian businessman Gerry Ryan.

Ryan, whose funding has pretty much kept the team going since its debut in 2012, has a penchant for unique ways to recognize benchmark achievements. In 2011, Ryan gave Cadel Evans a yellow Cadillac after he became the first Australian to win the Tour de France — not a sponsor’s gesture to Evans, as he then rode for BMC — but as a fellow Australian and backer of Australian cycling.

Asked if such a bonus awaits Chaves, who won stage 14 to Corvara in the Dolomites and was still placed second overall at three minutes to Kruijswijk after Thursday’s stage 18 from Muggio to Pinerolo, Ryan laughed and then replied: “I can’t say. There is something sitting in a shed somewhere, but who knows. I won’t tell you the color of it.” Does the color hinge on his final place? “It certainly does,” said Ryan.

Chaves may not be Australian; but he has certainly become one of the most admired and loved figures within the Orica team. And his success so far — whether he wins the Giro or not — has seen him embraced back in Australia by a growing legion of fans.

Moves are afoot to take Chaves to Australia for the Tour Down Under next year when he will also make his Tour de France debut. The decision is yet to be locked in, but Ryan said, “Esteban wants to go and ride the Tour Down Under. I’m not letting a secret out here, but he wants to come to Australia. And it will probably suit him with the change — he will be at the Tour next year.”

Chaves is the “most humble” of all, says Ryan

The 2011 Tour de l’Avenir winner started with the Colombian Colombia – Coldeportes, based in Italy, so local fans flock daily to the Orica-GreenEdge team bus. It is no surprise considering how Chaves engages the world around him. In his team’s “Backstage Pass” videos, Chaves, a.k.a “Chavito” or “Chicho,” is anything but the ever-serious or aloof team leader, rather one who is refreshingly self-effacing and can skylark as good as any.

Day after day and despite the accumulating fatigue and pressure from the job of trying to win a grand tour, he smiles and waves whenever he exits the team bus. And that is whether his reason is to speak to the media — from Colombian to international outlets — team guests, or fans like those he met before Thursday’s start in Muggio after the infectiously enthusiastic call from a Colombian woman who, without hesitation, peered into the bus, urging Chaves to come out with calls of: “Chavito … Chavito.” Typically, “Chavito” appeared … for selfies, autographs, hand shakes, and a huge hug from an elderly woman.

How does Chaves stand out as an athlete and person? Ryan replied: “Probably the most humble … He just keeps thanking myself, Shayne Bannan [general manager] and ‘Whitey’ [head sports director Matt White] and the management for giving the opportunity and bringing him back for a career that wouldn’t have happened. He is such a happy kid … always smiling.” And Ryan, who has a variety of business enterprises and whose sponsorship of sport in Australia extends beyond cycling — including Australian rules football, rugby, horse racing, and basketball — has seen plenty of champs and chumps in his day.

Chaves is the real deal, say teammates

Chaves’s teammates, such as Australian Damien Howson, concur. “It’s been an exciting journey and rewarding to see how he is going and how much respect he has for his teammates,” said Howson. “It’s not a show. He legitimately means it from the bottom of his heart, which makes it even more a reason to give that extra 10 percent.”

Sam Bewley, Chaves’ New Zealand teammate whose work for him on stage 14 to Corvara earned huge praise from the Colombian, said his inspiration to dig so deep for Chaves goes beyond it being his job. “It’s not just about having faith in your leader. It’s about having a relationship your leader. We are all riding for a friend,” Bewley said. “Esteban is a great guy, everybody loves him … and we know him better than how the media know him, and the media love him.

“When you are working for someone who you really respect and who you like, and you have a personal relationship with, you push yourself that extra mile … not just to do a job but help out a mate.”

Canadian Svein Tuft, who has been around long enough in his 39 years, and has seen champions come and go, is taken as much by Chaves’s charm as his class as a rider. “Everyone sees him as a funny smiling guy, and that’s true. He’s enjoying life,” Tuft said, then adding: “But you don’t do what he’s done without being a scrapper.

“He’s a real tough guy on the bike, and he’s fighting for position, getting the right wheel. All in all, he’s really relaxed and calm.”

It is little wonder Ryan is so upbeat about how the Giro might end on Sunday for Chaves and his team. “If you look back at our history we’ve always come out to try and win some stages and get the pink jersey,” said Ryan of the team’s past focus on the Giro that it first raced in 2012. “This is a different tour.

“Esteban is sitting second. There are the high mountains and he is ready. He is in good shape.”

Will it take Chaves to win the Giro for Ryan to bring out and give him the special prize that “sitting in a shed?” Who knows. What is sure is that however Chaves does finish, there will be smiles all around.

An American in France

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