Esteban Chaves at home in Australia despite shorter climbs
Colombian grand tour star Esteban Chaves has reminded his growing Australian fan base how much of a 'mountain goat' he really is by labelling the two key climbs that will likely determine the winner of the Tour Down Under as far too short for him.
Chaves, who races for the Australian Orica-Scott team, is regarded as a potential Tour de France winner and is one of the marquee names in the six-day Tour Down Under in South Australia.
The six-day race -- round one of the World Tour - began on Tuesday in sweltering heat with the 145km first stage from Unley to Lyndoch.
The race for overall victory will most likely be determined in two stages: stage two on Wednesday, 145km from Stirling to the hill top of Paracombe; and stage five on Saturday, 152km from McLaren Vale to the top of Willunga Hill.
Those two stage finishes are tough, but at 1.5km and 3.5km in length respectively they are not long enough for Chaves, who has played down his overall winning chances.
The Colombian revels in the high altitude of Bogota, where he was born and raised, riding up 20km-plus mountain passes like those on which he now trains and races at home in Europe, where he is now an established contender for the grand tours -- the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana.
"We have done the 'recon' for these two [decisive] stages; they are not easy, but I'm not sure that they are for climbers," Chaves told ESPN.com as he celebrated his 27th birthday on Monday, when Tour Down Under organisers presented him at with a lamington cake adorned with Australian and Colombian flags.
Elaborating on the Paracombe climb and Willunga Hill, which the peloton will race up twice, Chaves said while breaking into his trademark grin: "Both of them are less than seven minutes [long]. I prefer the climbs of 45 minutes."
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Chaves would not dismiss any winning opportunity this week, but his objectives are to re-engage his racing legs and accumulate early season kilometres. He will also place himself at the service of two of Australians teammates.
They are Simon Gerrans, the defending Tour Down Under champion who has won the overall race a record four times, and sprinter Caleb Ewan, who showed he is in form with victory in the Peoples' Choice Classic criterium in Adelaide on Sunday.
"It's the first race of the season for me, so I'm pretty excited about that," said Chaves. "I am here more to support the team, support the guys ... and for more [early] kilometres."
Chaves will certainly make best of the long trip down under by racing also in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Geelong, Victoria, on January 29, and in the Herald Sun Tour of Victoria from February 1-5. He will return to Bogota to contest the Colombian road championships on February 26.
"It is a hard race," Chaves said of the Colombian title race course. "We will try [to win] ... it is one objective for me.
"It will be beautiful if I can take the [national champion's] jersey at my home and wear the Colombian jersey all year."
Chaves got a taste of national championship fever last Sunday week, when he attended the Australian titles in Buninyong, Victoria, where six Orica-Scott teammates raced.
The 183.6km road riace event was won by 22-year old rookie professional Miles Scotson (BMC) who attacked the lead group of 14 inside the final two kilometres. Second was Gerrans, followed by Nathan Haas (Dimension Data).
"It was a super hard race," Chaves said when asked about the race, made up of 18 laps of a hilly 10.2km circuit.
"It was not easy. It was beautiful for the spectators because it was not controlled. You saw in the finale [Scotson] attacked near one kilometre from the finish ... the victory was well [executed].
"I could see 'Gerro' is in really good form ... [Teammate Luke] Durbridge and Jay McCarthy [Bora-Hansgrohe] as well."
Chaves' attendance at the national titles was well received by those fans who spotted him watching the event or earlier training on the race circuit. Likewise, he has also been feted in Adelaide.
His popularity blossomed in 2016 -- when he placed second overall in the Giro and third in the Vuelta, and won the Giro di Lombardia one-day classic -- and is likely to be on show throughout this week and after the Tour Down Under when he travels to Victoria to continue his racing.
It was clear at the start of Tuesday's first stage of the Tour Down Under. As the temperature rose past 40C on the road, one race commentator sang 'Happy Birthday' to Chaves at the sign-in area while excited spectators looked on.
Asked about his popularity in Australia, Chaves said: "It is because they showed the races [on television] here in Australia and I am in an Australian team ... and I am a smiler.
"I feel here is like home. I feel half Australian as well."