It takes a brave young British rider to turn down Team Sky, but perhaps an even braver one to not even start talking money with them because his mind is made up to join a smaller squad.
Opting for Cannondale-Drapac over the British-registered behemoth was just the latest in a series of bold decisions made by Hugh Carthy.
One of British cycling’s big hopes for the future, climber Carthy has spent 2015 and 2016 off the radar, racing for Spanish second-tier team Caja Rural-Seguros RGA. While the majority of British talents head for the familiarity of English-speaking teams, he immersed himself in the Basque Country – and thrived.
Carthy admits that he researched the Spanish team online after their offer in late 2014 to find out more about them. “I knew they were a professional team that rode the Vuelta, that was about it. I did a bit on Wikipedia, learned the roster,” he says.
Including Giro runner-up David Arroyo in their number, Caja Rural are animators of Spanish races and Mountain classification chasers. Pure climber Carthy is a good fit, even if he sticks out like a sore thumb on the team, due to his foreign mother tongue, lanky build and Schleck-esque matchstick limbs.
Part of a promising mid-Nineties British crop that includes Alex Peters and Tao Geoghegan-Hart, Carthy first emerged by winning the Tour of Korea with John Herety’s Rapha Condor squad in 2014.
It’s a long way from his Lancastrian hometown of Preston to Pamplona, but Carthy was happy to accept Caja Rural’s offer. “I always wanted to race abroad, race the Giro, Vuelta and the Tour. I never dreamed of riding in criteriums,” he says.
Carthy was barely phased by the obstacles. He moved into the shared team house in Pamplona and picked up Spanish in a matter of months (see below). There is no hint of homesickness.
“I’m glad to be here,” he says. “I’ve learned the language, I’ve made some good friends, I’ve learned a lot about cycling, learned a lot about being an adult. It’s not been easy but… it’s not been hard, if that makes sense.”
“I’ve not been suffering for a year, I’ve not been sat in my room upset and lonely. I don’t mind living in a foreign country on my own. I have friends back at home: they don’t miss me in a way, and I don’t miss them. They’d rather I was here, trying to be a professional cyclist, than being at home. It’s the best thing to do.”
Carthy has been ferociously single-minded in pursuit of a WorldTour contract: he didn’t visit home for ten months between last year’s Tour of Britain and July 2016, spending the winter in the Basque Country.
It has been a valuable, gritty apprenticeship in what he calls “bread-and-butter racing”. Caja Rural predominantly tour the circuit of European .1 and hors-catégorie races, meaning tough tests like the Giro del Trentino and the “relentless” Volta a Portugal.
There are obvious differences between WorldTour and Pro Continental teams in financial and organisational muscle. Caja Rural’s €3.5 million budget wouldn’t even pay for Chris Froome’s annual contract, so they make their resources go a long way. Nine times out of ten, the squad drive to races, leading to hours spent in a team car for Carthy on the way to far-flung French outposts. Another time, the Caja Rural team’s time-trial bikes failed to arrive at the 2015 USA Pro Challenge in Colorado, scuppering Carthy’s hopes of a top-five overall finish.
However, his time in Spain has helped him learn to go with the flow. “I don’t think as many little things bother me like they used to,” he says. “I’ve just grown up, I guess.”
An upshot of racing with Caja Rural is the occasional WorldTour invitation. He still remembers his top-tier debut at the 2015 Tour of the Basque Country. “I’ve never seen speed like that before,” he recalls.
On one stage finale, Carthy was in his top gear and felt like he couldn’t pedal fast enough. “At the finish, I thought I’d done all right. I looked at the results: 98th or something. I barely made the top 100. That’s when you realise: this is the difference.”
Fast forward a year to the Volta a Catalunya in March, and he seemingly bridged that gap to the WorldTour frontrunners. Carthy remembers nervously talking to his mum on the phone beforehand and hearing her awe at the calibre of riders present: Froome, Quintana, Contador and so on. “Just do your best, son,” she told him. He hoped for a top-20 on a stage.
Carthy (below) surprised himself and observers as the race revelation, finishing best young rider and ninth overall, notably in front of Fabio Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez. It was no longer a case of “Hugh who?”
“It’s not what I expected to do but at the same time, deep down, maybe I knew I was capable of it,” he says. “It was one of those weeks where you seem to have the best form of your life.”
This was the season’s pivotal result for Carthy, in what he dubs “probably the most important year of my career”, given his WorldTour ambitions and expiring Caja Rural contract. Several teams showed interest and a two-year deal with Cannondale-Drapac was soon inked.
Directeur sportif Charly Wegelius – also trained for years by Carthy’s coach, Ken Matheson – had been in casual touch with the youngster for months, checking how he was. It was an indication of their good faith.
Team Sky got in contact this spring but according to Carthy, it never went as far as negotiations because his heart was already set on joining Cannondale-Drapac. “In this stage of my career, a team the size and structure of Cannondale is what I’m best-suited to,” Carthy says.
“Beyond his results, the thing that really impresses me about Hugh is the way he’s gone about achieving what he’s achieved,” Wegelius said in a recent Cannondale-Drapac press release. “He’s done it the hard way. In a world where riders from Great Britain are wrapped up in the bubble of British Cycling, he went out and made a go of it in Pamplona and raced with a small team.”
His future assured, you might have expected Carthy to rest on his laurels from mid-April onwards. Instead, he trained even harder. “I knew I was capable of more,” he says.
So it proved, taking a stage and the overall at the Tour of Asturias and pushing Nairo Quintana hard in a Route du Sud mountain-top stage on the way to third place.
The 22-year-old is a rough diamond. To shine in future stage races, he recognises the need to strengthen against the clock, having spent two seasons barely touching his time-trial bike outside of races.
But Carthy shows an eagerness to learn. He spent time over winter on time trialling forums (“Don’t put that in, it sounds a bit sad, doesn’t it?” he says, smiling) and gleaning information on his aerodynamic position.
“I’ve looked at a lot of GC-type riders, of similar physical stature to me. Riders like Wiggins, Froome, taller, skinnier riders, and tried to copy their positions as much as possible.”
Carthy’s objective at the start of the year was to ride the Vuelta with a WorldTour contract in his pocket. Mission accomplished.
While it will be adios to Caja Rural this autumn, he is adamant he’ll stick in the Basque Country next year, having developed a close network of friends.
“I think they have good principles here,” he says. “In England, you see a lot of people driving round in flash cars, black windows, black wheels, shit like that. The Basque people don’t go for that. Function over form is the best way to describe it. They’ll drive an old car, but it’ll work perfectly.”
Function over form is a good way of describing Carthy’s own route from Preston to the WorldTour, via Pamplona. Brave, unorthodox and unglamorous, yet effective.
“From the outside, people at the time were thinking that’s a bit of a gamble, I can’t see a British rider on a Spanish team working out,” Carthy says. “But it did work out: it’s worked out fine.”