Chaves donned the Maglia Rosa after finishing third in an epic stage that saw Steven Kruijswick (LottoNL-Jumbo) lose his overall advantage after he crashed into a wall of snow on the descent of the ‘Cima Coppi’.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) took a long-awaited stage victory 51 seconds ahead of Mikel Nieve (Sky) with Chaves third at 53 seconds. Chaves' effort up the final climb saw him gain four minutes and one second over Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), which placed the smiling Colombian into the overall lead.
The 26-year-old proudly wears the pink jersey for Orica-GreenEDGE and holds a 44 second advantage to Nibali with just two more race days to come.
A great team performance from Orica-GreenEDGE saw Ruben Plaza escape in the breakaway on the ‘Cima Coppi’ climb before joining up with Chaves later in the stage and supporting the queen stage winner onto the start of the final climb.
“It’s a dream. Absolutely incredible. The team were fantastic yet again today and I have to thank them and everyone at Orica-GreenEDGE because this is for all of us.
“Today was truly a difficult stage but we executed our race plan to perfection. Ruben was ahead in the break and he worked very hard for me in the final after Damien (Howson) had done a great job on the Colle dell Agnello.” - Esteban Chaves
Chaves instigated and fended off attacks in an impressive performance throughout the stage before battling and riding intelligently with Nibali on the climb to the finish in Risoul.
“I tried to follow Vincenzo (Nibali) when he attacked late in the stage,” Chaves said. “I managed to keep my rhythm and stay close enough at the finish. I’m very sorry for the crash of Steven (Kruijswijk), unfortunately it’s a part of bike racing and he was unlucky today.”
Orica-GreenEDGE sport director, Matt White was very content at the end of the stage but well aware there is another big day in the mountains to come tomorrow.
“We wanted to get someone in the breakaway today that’s for sure. After yesterday's stage we knew the racing was going to be very aggressive today with lots of teams looking to get into the break which didn’t end up forming until 75km in.
“It made the difference for us having Plaza up the road because he was so important for Esteban in the final third of the stage when the chasers looked to be getting closer.” - Matt White
Stage 19 began at a frantically fast pace with riders shed from the peloton almost as soon as the flag dropped. Despite countless attempts, the peloton was desperately keeping things together as the start of the first climb, the Colle dell’Agnello, approached.
Plaza was one of 28 riders who finally formed the breakaway that escaped on the climb and developed an advantage of four minutes on the Chaves group.
Six riders including Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) attacked from the breakaway group ahead of the first mountains points of the day with Ulissi claiming the points. The group had around 30 seconds on the twenty chasers before Michele Scarponi (Astana) began to drive the pace and broke clear with 65km left to race.
The Chaves and Kruijswijk group were six minutes behind as Michele Scarponi neared the cloud covered summit of the Colle dell’Agnello and Chaves decided to make his move. The Colombian attacked after a huge pull by Howson with initially only Kruijswijk able to follow. Nibali caught back on and with Kruijswijk and Chaves put over 30 seconds into the Valverde group.
Race leader Kruijswijk crashed dramatically into the snow banked on the roadside a few hundred metres into the descent with the Dutchman losing contact with Chaves and Nibali who had then joined up with Plaza.
Into the last 40km Plaza powered forward with Chaves on his wheel and Nibali just behind. Ahead, Scarponi was virtually track standing in the middle of the road with 30km to go as he waited for Nibali ahead of the final climb. The Chaves group had swelled to seven riders as they picked up Scarponi and stragglers from the earlier breakaway.
Plaza led the group onto the final climb to Risoul with 12km to go as Kruijswijk was already over two minutes behind and losing time. Nibali attacked multiple times only to be covered by Chaves, until he eventually gained 20m on Chaves who maintained his rhythm as the gradient sharpened.
Nibali pushed out for the stage win with Chaves crossing the line in third place, 53 seconds later, to take the race lead and the pink jersey into tomorrow’s penultimate stage.
“Nibali was very strong on the final climb,” White said. “But Esteban rode really well and measured his rhythm and his tempo all the way to the finish.
“Tomorrow is going to be a very difficult stage and we are going to have to be on our guard all the time, but we have one more hard day to go and we are really happy to be in this position.”
Stage 20 is another difficult Alpine mountain stage covering 134km and three peaks from Gillestre to Sant’Anna di Vinadio. The course includes three epic climbs, the Col de Vars, the Col de la Bonette and the Colle della Lombarda all coming before a tough summit finish.