Creating champions in Colombia

Esteban Chaves inspires his country on and off the bike

September 28, 2022

When Esteban Chaves was a boy, his dad used to take him out riding in the mountains of Colombia.

Esteban’s dad was his hero. Every time they raced up their local climb, Esteban’s dad would drop him. Esteban asked his dad once if he could beat Lance Armstrong.

‘Yes,’ his dad laughed, ‘but I love you and your brother and mum too much and enjoy my work as a carpenter’.

One day, Esteban and his dad set off up their local climb like always and Esteban won.

‘Wow,’ Esteban thought. ‘If I can beat my dad, I can beat Lance Armstrong’.

That thought gave Esteban wings. Soon, he was winning races in Colombia. Esteban’s family didn’t have much money, but they scrabbled together cash to get Esteban bikes and get him to races. Esteban’s dad wanted to give Esteban all of the chances that he had never got himself. He believed that Esteban could be a champion.

That belief brought Esteban to Europe, carried him to grand-tour stage wins, and victory at Il Lombardia. Against all odds, from a humble childhood in Colombia, Esteban Chaves became a cycling superstar. When he nearly died in a crash, it motivated him to keep racing. It was years before Esteban’s dad told him that he let him beat him that day. By then, Esteban had already proved that he was one of the best bike racers in the world. On his day, he can beat anyone. He’s believed that ever since he was a child.

Many kids in Colombia aren’t so lucky. Their dreams are soon crushed by the need to put food on their families’ tables.

“Especially in rural areas, you do a basic study and then you need to go to work,” Esteban says. “People don’t work for life; they work to survive. It is pretty hard to get to the end of the month. Kids can’t leave the towns where they were born, because they need to work on their farms with their dads and just continue the process.”

Cycling gives Colombian kids a chance to escape, even if it’s only for a couple of hours.

“Most children from the country, from the farms, will wake at four a.m. to go milk the cows and pull potatoes from the earth,” Esteban says. “Mum might make them a bit of a brekkie, and then they will bike ten kilometres to go to school. They will do all of their school work, come back, and then go to train, because they just love cycling. They’ll come back at night and go pull vegetables from the fields. They are so resilient. These kids just eat eggs and rice, and they just keep dreaming. They keep believing.”

Colombia’s kids inspire Esteban. He now races for them. Esteban wants to help the children of Colombia get opportunities to follow their dreams.

A few years ago, Esteban and his family set up the Esteban Chaves Fundación to contribute to the lives of Colombia’s youth. While the challenges that his people face still sometimes seem overwhelming, Esteban knows first-hand what a difference a gift of care can make to a young person.

When Esteban was 22, he crashed in a race in Italy and nearly lost his life. He fractured his skull, collarbone, ribs, right cheekbone, maxillary sinuses, and sphenoid bone, punctured a lung and had severe scrapes and bruises. Worst of all, he suffered nerve damage in his right arm. He could not feel his fingers, let alone pull a brake lever or shift gears.

At that time, Esteban was not the star he is today. He went looking for a doctor who would help him, but his case was complicated and no one wanted to operate on him. It seemed as if Esteban’s cycling career was over before he had really got started.

“They were all like, ‘pass on him, pass on him—pass on me,’” Esteban says. “They would say, ‘Maybe we can fix your arm, but we don’t know, so we’re not going to try’”.

Finally, Esteban found a surgeon in Colombia who was willing to try. The surgery worked. That Colombian doctor, Julio Sandoval, changed Esteban’s life and gave him hope. He still had to work hard to recover, but soon Esteban was flying up mountains like he was born to do. His greatest victories were ahead of him.

Those victories were hollow if they were only for him though. Esteban wanted to race for a greater cause than himself.

His foundation now organises the Grand Fondo Esteban Chaves, a campaign to raise money for surgeries for kids who couldn’t otherwise pay for them. The organisation works closely with the doctor who fixed Esteban’s arm when he was 22 and has transformed the lives of dozens of children who were born with clubfoot, cerebral palsy, and other crippling conditions.

“They are just like me,” Esteban says. “These kids were getting passed up on, because they didn’t have the money or the status. The surgeries sometimes take one hour, maybe 40 minutes. It is like carpentry. The doctors just cut and put together, and that changes the lives of the kids. I am really lucky, because I found the right person at the right moment in my life, and if we can provide that experience to families—that is what life is about. Money and results and all that stuff at one moment will be gone. This is what matters. In the future, if one kid is like, ‘Man, I can walk because one day one crazy guy who rode a bike paid for my surgery and now I can work and have a family,’ that is what matters. That is what I want. That is my dream.”

Esteban has never stopped dreaming. From his first rides with his dad around Bogota to victories in grand tours to the operating wards of Colombian hospitals, that’s how he became the champion he is today. For the future of his country and each kid he can help, Esteban wants to give Colombians the means to follow their own dreams. That’s what the Esteban Chaves Fundación’s cycling projects are all about.

The Clásica Esteban Chaves is a four-stage race around Bogota for teenage boys and girls, which has become one of the best junior events in the country. Colombia’s fastest kids aim to come and race in an event that treats them almost as if they were professionals. If they need kit, Esteban’s foundation has set up ‘FunBoxes’ in bike shops around the country to collect used equipment to donate to schools, clubs, and academies across Colombia. Esteban is especially proud of the fact that the girls who come to race can ride in proper pelotons—something that is still rare in Latin America—and compete for the same prizes as the boys.

Esteban’s foundation has also set up a cycling school. The aim is to teach youngsters all of the basic skills they will need to become racers. More importantly, the school fosters the values that they will need to be successful in life.

Most of the kids who go to Esteban’s cycling school hope that they will make it on to the Equipo de Ciclismo FUN Chaves, the junior development team that Esteban set up in 2015, which gives young Colombian racers the opportunity to compete in world-class events around the globe.

“Some of their stories are so beautiful,” Esteban says. “They really touch your heart. Most of them have never seen the ocean. Most of them don’t have a passport. And we provide the opportunity for them to travel around the world. They come to the team and leave with different ambitions.”

Every year, hundreds of kids come to try out for the squad. The best will get pro-level bikes and kit and coaching and chances to race top-class events. There is nothing to stop them from reaching their potential.

“All of the talent, all the heart, all the conviction comes from them and their families when they join us, and we literally just give a little push with the bike, with the kit, with the nutrition, and some help,” Esteban says. “But the main work comes from them and how they work and how they grow up.”

Two riders from Esteban’s junior team have already made it to the World Tour. Santiago Buitrago and Einer Rubio both got their start with FunChaves. They are inspirations for the next generation of Colombians.

“If you are a kid, just dreaming on your way to the school on your mountain bike, then you’re like, 'if this guy Esteban Chaves, or Santiago Buitrago, can do it, and they are the same as I am, then I can do it,” Esteban says.

Such self-belief is powerful. Esteban’s father instilled it in Esteban when he was a child. Esteban is not going to start letting his juniors beat him though.

“Of course, I want to win races, but now it’s because when I win races, I can show that dreams can come true,” he says.

Whether juniors make it to the World Tour is not the most important thing anyways.

“Some of them will make it as professionals, and that is super valuable for us, but what really matters is that we change the life of every kid on our teams. When you are a rider, you work in a team, you need to have a lot of discipline, you need to arrive on time, you need to look after your bike, and you need to look after your mates. If you translate that to normal life, you are of really good value. If our riders become professionals, sweet. If they don’t, we know we made a better person, because they were a part of the process. This is the true value of sport. This is the true value of cycling in Colombia.”

Cycling breeds champions on and off the bike. Esteban Chaves is proof of that.

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