Words by Peter Cossins | Photos by ASO/GOMEZSPORT
Since 2012, British bike fans have become used to their riders being in contention and winning Grand Tours. Since Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France success that season, Chris Froome has completed a sweep of the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, winning no fewer than seven three-week races in total, Geraint Thomas has won the Tour, and Simon Yates the Vuelta. The latter three all had hopes of adding to these successes during this year.
Yet, to general surprise, the British challenge for Grand Tour success in this most unprecedented of seasons has been spearheaded by two relatively unheralded riders, Ineos Grenadier Tao Geoghegan Hart, who came through on the very last day to win the Giro, and EF Education First’s Hugh Carthy, who has a shot of pulling off a very similar coup as the Vuelta reaches its endgame. Third overall going in the last few days, just 47 seconds down on race leader Primož Roglič, and winner on the Puerto de l’Angliru, arguably the toughest climb to feature in any Grand Tour, 26-year-old Carthy has risen steadily into the stage racing elite.
Born in Preston, he was raised as a cyclist in the Pennine hills that overlook that Lancastrian town whose sporting alumni include the great England footballer Sir Tom Finney and multi-talented and maverick cricketer Andrew Flintoff. His potential shone through as a teenager, notably when he won the Junior Tour of Wales, which also features the likes of Dan Martin, Eddie Dunbar and Tom Pidcock on its list of champions.
In 2013, when he was still only 18, he joined the British Rapha-Condor team, his results over two seasons with the British outfit, particularly in the mountains, attracting much attention. Yet, when he stepped up to the elite ranks, it was not with Sky, who offered him a contract, but the unfashionable Caja Rural team based in the Spanish city of Pamplona.
The move, at the start of the 2015 season, appeared leftfield, but suited Carthy’s ambitions. “I ended up in Spain because my manager is Spanish,” he explained in an interview with Spanish daily El País during that spell. “Caja Rural is the perfect team for me now: a team with ambition, but not so big that they won’t give opportunities to a boy of 20-21, but without there being any pressure.”
He turned down Sky, he added, because, he felt he wouldn’t get anything like the same chance, saying that a rider needs to have a significant racing history to be taken seriously as a leader at a team of that stature. “Before going to Sky I have to win important races and stages in the major tours, the Giro and Tour, so that they have some respect for me,” he said.
That interview came about after Carthy had won the 2016 edition of the Tour of Asturias. The article highlights the Briton’s quirkiness, and especially his difference to most other British pros. “He doesn’t seem British,” it says, “not only because he goes out of his way to speak in Spanish, but also for his open perspective and curiosity in things beyond that country.”
When he stepped into the WorldTour in 2017, it was with Cannondale, another team that he felt would give him the chance to develop without applying too much pressure. Speaking to him early that season at the Tour of the Alps, where he finished an impressive 14th as Geraint Thomas took the title, I found Carthy shy and even a little prickly, an enigmatic figure who preferred to let his legs do his talking for him and wasn’t much interested in explaining the hows and whys of his racing prowess and objectives.
Speaking to Cycling Weekly’s Jonny Long for a Carthy profile piece during this year’s Tour, EF DS Charly Wegelius agreed that Carthy prefers to stay out of the media spotlight and let his performances speak for him. “I think he likes to do things his own way. He’s not very interested in what the outside world is saying, but privately he’s got a pretty good sense of humour,” Wegelius told Long.
Other EF teammates and members of staff back up this assessment, among them Tejay van Garderen, who’s developed a close friendship with the Englishman. In that same profile, the American revealed that Carthy likes to go against the grain, to say “black” when everyone says “white”, but also stressing that his dry sense of humour helps to boost morale throughout the EF team.
This trait has become more apparent during the Vuelta, Carthy knocking back the suggestion that the Angliru is the hardest climb he’s ever tackled by insisting there are harder ones near his Lancashire home. Asked a couple of days later, following his impressive performance in the Mirador de Ezaro time trial that lifted him to third on GC, whether it was the best time trial of his career, Carthy drily responded he’d done some pretty good ones in 10s (10-mile time trials) back in Lancashire.
There’s something of Wiggins in responses like these, a sense of self-deprecation, of not taking the sport too seriously, or at least of keeping it in perspective. It’s a way too of reducing the pressure, both in the moment and, more importantly, on the road ahead. He is, say EF teammates, comfortable within his own skin and unlikely to get carried away by any hoopla that might be building around him.
We all, of course, waiting to find out where that road ahead leads in the short term. Can he beat Primož Roglič and Richard Carapaz and win the Vuelta? Based on what we’ve seen so far during Carthy’s career and particularly this race, if there’s an opportunity for him to do so, he will attempt to take it. After all, as he himself has pointed out, with a stage win on the Angliru already in the bag, what has he got to lose?
And what of the longer term? Described in L’Équipe following that Angliru win as looking like a cross between Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel and having a profile like a stork “with legs as straight as baguettes”, Carthy might look and seem a little unorthodox, but his method can’t be questioned. Having followed his own path and progressed steadily, he now looks well set to become a regular Grand Tour contender, whatever happens in the rest of this Vuelta.
Often tagged as a pure climber, he’s shown that he’s more than that. He can hold his own in a time trial and is tactically very astute, which was highlighted in his enthralling explanation of his Angliru success in a Life in the Peloton podcast interview by EF teammate Mitch Docker, the conversation between the pair an hour very well spent.
He’s at that point he mentioned in El País four years ago, where the leading teams do respect him and have him marked as a rival who must be watched. Climbing quietly and steadily, he’s reached the top.