AL AIN // Perhaps it was destined to be that for the dramatic beauty of Jebel Hafeet, only a finish to match the surrounds would suffice.
As he came to the final, sharp turn leading to the home straight of the Abu Dhabi Tour's third stage, probably less than 150 metres to go, Team Sky's Wouter Poels could probably have felt the red and green jerseys on him.
A counter-attack on Esteban Chaves over the last 400m of a gruelling 11.7-kilometre climb had seen him surge past the diminutive Colombian.
But Poels headed into the final corner at too great a speed and, astonishingly – staggeringly – felt his front wheel go beneath him. He skidded off and Chaves, grateful and surprised, pedalled over the line with a little prayer of thanks.
Poels got up and got back on his bike, but by now Fabio Aru had also rushed past. The Dutchman was left to dragging himself over the line, pushing with his left foot on a malfunctioning bike.
To end a 142km-stage like this? Cruel does not begin to describe it.
Chaves assessed the situation perfectly, graciously refusing to raise his arms in triumph as he crossed because he did not feel “it was the right thing to do”.
Nevertheless, the stroke of fortune leaves Chaves on the brink of a first General Classification race win. Going into the final stage at the Yas Marina circuit he holds a 16-second lead over Aru.
Given that it will almost certainly be another bunch sprint finish, closing that gap will require a misfortune of the proportions suffered by Poels yesterday, and then some, to fall upon Chaves.
He did not realise he was this close to a major triumph, he said later. “Actually yes, I didn’t think about this,” he said.
“As a professional, after I pass the finish line tomorrow, it will be my first General Classification victory. But we’ll wait till tomorrow after I cross the finish line. But it’ll be a pretty big win for me. Every victory is big.”
Chaves is a likeable young man, and at 25, he was young enough to snap up the white jersey for young rider, sponsored by The National.
His has been a smiling presence since the day he landed in Abu Dhabi.
But the nature of his win in Jebel Hafeet, in which he beat out bona fide climbing legends, will add more lustre to a growing reputation. Though Colombian, he is based in La Massana in Andorra, right in the middle of the mountains. It is a handy place to be for a climbing specialist.
He attacked the climb early with around 4km to go, leaving Vincenzo Nibali and Aru behind. Remember, Aru is the Vuelta a Espana champion this year.
But it was on that Tour that Chaves’s career took an upturn. He also won two stages and the confidence from those has left him a different cyclist.
“The confidence is mainly coming from the good work, the discipline and the sacrifice, all of which started before the Vuelta a Espana win,” he said.
“All that started before. But what that win has changed for my racing is that when you start now, you don’t ask maybe you can win. Now you’re sure you can. If you train hard, eat good, you do stretches, you control all this, then its possible. Now we know it’s possible to win.”
It was a more impressive win still for the temperatures in which it was achieved. Chaves had said before the race that he had raced in especially warm conditions, in Colombia and Algeria. But this, he said, was the “hottest race” he had been in.
He ended up pouring 30-35 bottles of water on himself during the race. However, that has not deterred him from wanting to be here again next year.
“I said before the race this is important because cycling is becoming more global, not only in one continent in Europe like in the past. There are important races in USA, Europe, Russia and here. This is really important for cycling.
“I’m really excited to be here. When we’re planning in January this year, I was asked do you want to go. I said of course. I was really excited, and I will come again for sure.”
Chaves is likely to do so as champion.
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