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King of the North: Hugh Carthy’s impressive breakthrough Giro d’Italia

30 May 2019

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Chris Auld

Watching a Lancastrian dancing up the climbs of the Giro d’Italia, taking the fight to Movistar on the Mortirolo, descending with Vincenzo Nibali into Como was to be expected over the last two weeks.

We expected a rider from the red rose county to be fighting among the best in Italy’s Alps and Dolomites, it’s just the rider we expected to be doing so is different from the rider who is actually doing it.

Bury’s own Simon Yates was written in the script as the tough northerner expected to take the Giro by the scruff of the neck. A Vuelta a Espana winner, a three-time Giro stage winner and last year’s Grand Tour revelation, he was a favourite to win the Maglia Rosa.

However, this Giro hasn’t quite gone to script.

Not only is Richard Carapaz, a young fourth choice GC rider from small football-mad Ecuador riding for Movistar, on the cusp of one of the biggest Grand Tour upsets since Chris Horner's Vuelta win back in 2013, but Britain and Lancashire's brightest light has actually been in the form of a lanky, awkward mountain goat from Preston called Hugh Carthy.

Carthy has been nothing short of a revelation this Giro. His ability to climb was never in doubt but to do it at the level, and with the consistency he has achieved so far this Giro, is remarkable.

When Nibali took a bite from his rivals on the Mortirolo on Stage 16, instead of Yates or Movistar or Primoz Roglic closing the gap, it was Carthy who shot off in pursuit, matching the four-time Grand Tour winner pedal for pedal until the summit.

Ever the realist, when Carthy was asked about what he’d done, riding with someone of the calibre of Nibali up one of Italy’s hardest climbs, his response gave an insight into the 24-year-old's character.

‘We hit the [Mortirolo] and the race just exploded, well, it didn't really explode, but teams just started riding harder and harder,’ said Carthy. 'Then Nibali attacked and got a gap, and I bridged across to him. I probably could have waited with the little group I was with.

‘Today I felt good, very good, but tomorrow I could wake up and feel terrible. So you have to keep a level head and keep preparing the same way, eating and recovering. Don't get carried away.’

Two days previous, Carthy was mixing it with the likes of Nibali and Carapaz, this time being the first rider to attack on the climb of Civiglio in the closing minutes of Stage 15.

It was his attack that put Roglic on the back foot, with the Slovenian eventually losing time. But, again, Carthy was measured in his analysis.

‘I felt fresh all day. To attack like I did on the final climb was instinctive and going early was to mess with people’s heads. I just knew I had to a time-trial to the top of the climb and there were plenty of people to keep me motivated along the way,’ said Carthy to press after the stage.

'Following Nibali and Carapaz on the descent was nice, you get caught up in it and the fear goes out your head, it was good to ride instinctively. The rest day is feeling well deserved now for everyone, I just need to switch off now and then hopefully come back again a bit stronger.’

Carthy’s riding is instinctive but his character is composed. He is confident to ride according to how he feels while smart enough not to get carried away. He is also not afraid of getting dropped and he admits that's just part of bike racing.

When you see this combination of pragmatism and individualism on the bike, you understand Carthy’s past.

Spanish eyes

A talented youngster breaking through at the same time as Tao Geoghegan Hart and Alex Peters, Carthy rode well for John Heraty and his Rapha-Condor squad winning the Tour of Korea at just 19-years-old.

From there, Carthy took a different route to most talented British riders. Keen to race abroad and experience new cultures, Carthy signed for the Spanish second-tier team Caja-Rural in 2015, admitting at the time he wanted to race on the Continent, not just your local criteriums.

It was a culture shock, moving from Preston to Pamplona, but the right move. He learnt his trade training and living in the Basque Country, a region infatuated with cycling, racing tough European stage races, improving race on race. He made friends, he learned Spanish.

He also proved a perfect fit for Cara-Rujal. A tiny team whose budget wouldn’t even tempt Peter Sagan out of bed, it lives for riders with personality.

Carthy rode just like his northern Spanish counterparts. He would try, fail and try again, just like any Basque riders that come to your mind. This mixture of pragmatism and individualism also explains why Carthy now wears an Education First jersey.

You see, the money bags of Team Ineos (then Team Sky) had their eye on Carthy in 2017, wanting to bolster their already-impressive roster of young British talent.

However, before Dave Brailsford could even reach for his embossed wallet to name a price, Carthy had said ‘thanks, but no thanks’, signing on the dotted line of Jonathan Vaughters's American outfit.

Again, it proved a perfect match. With the likes of Taylor Phinney, Alex Howes and Joe Dombrowski, Education First move slower and freer than most. They praise individualism and support opportunism.

It’s proved a perfect match for Carthy who has slowly cultivated himself into a proper WorldTour pro in two and a half years.

He's victoryless in this time but there’s been clear development. With each race he has been getting closer to the best on the climbs and now, on the biggest stage, he is proving he can hang with almost anyone on any ascent, however hard.

It’s why he is performing so well at this Giro, mixing it with the best, rather than being whipped into pushing a twenty-minute effort for his superior team leaders 80km from the line.

Carthy is an individual on the bike and a realist off it. It’s why we are likely to continue seeing the best of Carthy at this Giro and why his ultimate best is yet to come.