Richard Carapaz: Strong Like the Wind
From Rouleur issue 20.3, first published in 2020, Matt Rendell travelled to Ecuador to meet the 2019 Giro d'Italia winner, Richard Carapaz
Curved trajectories in rotating frames are difficult to visualise, but let’s try. Imagine two children on seats mounted at opposite ends of a beam or seesaw, throwing a ball to each other. Seen from above, so setting aside the arch of its trajectory, the ball travels in a straight line. Now, start the beam rotating around its midpoint. Envisage, if you can, the ball’s line of flight now: it is still straight. It is the would-be catcher who spins away during the ball’s flight – or does if the observer is standing still. From the viewpoint of someone rotating at the same rate as the kids, the ball’s trajectory is curved. A force appears to be pulling it away from its intended target. This is what they call the Coriolis effect.
Richard Carapaz saw it as a teenager at the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo – the City in the Middle of the World, just north of Quito, a standard destination for school trips in Ecuador. The guide poured a bucket of water into a basin on wheels, let it settle, then removed the plug.
A metre north of the Equator, it formed an anti-clockwise whirlpool. A metre south, it was clockwise. Right on the Equator, there was no whirlpool. The water went straight down.
Disappointingly, the experiment was faked. The Coriolis effect explains why continent-sized areas of low pressure rotate in different directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. Its action on individual buckets of water is vanishingly small. Even so, Ecuador’s geography is extreme. Nowhere else gives you such a sense of spinning through space on an oblate spheroid.
It can shake you to the core in other ways too. Take death – a subject some cultures prefer to avoid. Here, the Día de los Difuntos is a major feast day. Peasant farmers flock to the cemeteries with food and flowers to celebrate the lives of their forebears. So when, 17 days after this day of the dead, the Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz suggests we drive the 24 kilometres from his hometown of Julio Andrade to Tulcán, the capital of Carchi province, snug against the Colombian border, to see the cemetery, it is entirely normal. Apart from anything, it is a national heritage site: in 1936, an Ecuadorian topiarist named José María Azael Franco Guerrero began planting it with Mediterranean cypress bushes. He gave them ten years to establish themselves, then set about them with clippers, carving faces, animals and indigenous symbols in their foliage.
Richard walks us to a section dedicated to the region’s indigenous culture – the cosmology of the Pasto people – then steers the conversation to local Carchi surnames. “Cuasquer, Cuasapud, Cuasapas, Carapaz… I have friends with all those names. Cuasquer means ‘Great Chieftain.’ Carapaz means ‘the strength of the wind’ or ‘strong like the wind.’”
Nothing to do with peace or carapaces, then: a descendant of the Pastos and, as such, one of that handful of indigenous – post-indigenous, we might say, like the Quintana brothers, Darwin Atapuma, Winner Anacona and others – who have helped shape world cycling over the past decade. I am accommodating my worldview to this when Richard stops before a tombstone.
Juan Carlos Rosero García. Ecuador’s most successful cyclist – until Richard Carapaz. Three Vueltas a Ecuador, the leader’s jersey from start to finish in 1992, his annus mirabilis, when he became the first foreign winner of the hard-fought Vuelta a Boyacá in Colombia, and finished fifth in the Vuelta a Colombia, displacing Lucho Herrera from the race lead for a day. He was Richard’s first coach, with the Prefecture of Carchi team, and his “friend, brother and second father”.
Born 28 November 1962. Died 23 January 2013 – a day Richard will never forget. That morning, Juan Carlos Rosero, a 19-year-old Carapaz and several team-mates set off for a pre-season jog in the mountains.
“We dropped him on the climbs and he caught us on the descents, until he began to feel ill and decided to turn back. I called him later to see if he could pick us up. At first he said no. Then he called back and said, ‘I’m on my way.’ He picked us up, dropped us off, then, three hours later, the phone rang. I thought there had been some sort of mix up. Or it was a bad joke. I ran to the emergency room. They sent me to the morgue where I found his family weeping. It was my first experience of death.”
In another part of the cemetery, Richard stops beside another grave: José María Carapaz, his paternal grandfather, a hunter and charcoal burner who had made enough to buy out his brothers’ and sisters’ land. Gravely ill throughout Richard’s triumphant Giro, he died on 16 August 2019. An Ecuadorian married to a Colombian, José María exemplified the blurring of identity and nationality here. Like many in Carchi province, José María was a cross-border trader, playing on the exchange rates to turn a profit. It is standard practice here: the shops accept Colombian pesos as well as the US dollar, Ecuadorian currency since the Sucre was phased out in 2000. Small coins hardly used any more in the USA get a new lease of life here, while anything larger than a $20 bill can be hard to change – and the money-changers at the crossing give better rates than the banks. Ecuadorians cross into Colombia to buy electrical goods, Colombians cross into Ecuador to buy fuel and clothes, and every form of smuggling is rife: to name but one, cars are fitted with concealed tanks in every recess to spirit subsidised Ecuadorian petrol past the guards.
The border culture breeds opportunism, street sharpness, and a sense of being different from the rest of the country. The land is fertile here. “Carchi supplies Ecuador with potatoes, sweetcorn, spring onions, and cyclists,” Richard says. “When I won the Giro, the people wanted the victory for themselves. They started talking about the independent republic of Carchi.” Tongue in cheek it may have been, but Richard’s baseball cap has ‘04’, the first two digits in Carchi identity numbers, displayed prominently above the peak.
A new generation
The following morning, we follow by car as he rides between the farmsteads of La Playa, where he grew up. The gradients are steep here, the altitude close to 3,200 metres, yet Richard doesn’t sweat or even seem to breathe.
“Juan Carlos used to tell me, ‘This isn’t altitude training. We are adapted to living here. We have the right physique.’”
There is no beach at La Playa, of course: before the River Chingual was diverted to irrigate intensive agriculture (Richard tells me, “All the government cares about is productivity. The peasant farmers are abandoned to their own devices”), its silt accumulated into sandy banks that gave the area its name. The river once teemed with fish. Richard often used to catch breakfast with a pole and line. But today only a small creek remains, crossing a triangle of land that has a volcano at each corner – Cumbal and Chiles to the north, in Colombia, Reventador to the south – and La Playa at its centre.
Richard’s family has lived here for four generations, since one of his great-grandfathers, a soldier, came from San Gabriel, itself only 14 kilometres away. They were a family of small farmers until his father switched to driving a truck. “For 15 years he transported coffee from the Ecuadorian Amazon, through the border controls with Colombia, to the coffee warehouses in Ipiales on the other side,” Richard says.
But Antonio Carapaz was clearly a shrewd businessman too, for, while he operated his one-man haulage firm, he employed six permanent labourers on his own land and rented fields.
Antonio and Ana Luísa – known to everyone as Anita – Montenegro spent ten childless years here before resolving to travel to the capital, Quito, for fertility tests. To pay for them, Antonio needed the proceeds from the next potato crop. While the potatoes ripened, Anita, aged 40, discovered, to her delight, that she was pregnant. Their daughter Marcela arrived in 1992. Richard came a year later, on 29 May 1993, followed by Cristina the year after that.
After primary school at La Playa, aged 11, Richard started secondary school at El Playón de San Francisco, on the dividing line between the border provinces of Carchi and Sucumbíos, nine kilometres along the unmade road. At first he took an old 4×4 that served as a school bus, making several trips to make sure all the Playa kids got there. Then, aged fourteen, he found a bike in a shipment of junk his father had picked up.
“My old bike was broken, so I climbed into the truck and found another one in perfect condition. I woke up my father and told him I wanted it. I rode it until the tyres had worn down to nothing and I was cycling on the metal rims.”
Good enough in class to be made an escolta– a kind of prefect – he ran in inter-school athletics meets before he discovered cycling. It nearly never happened. Late in 2007, the owner of a national road construction firm called Panavial encouraged Juan Carlos Rosero to pass on his experience to a new generation of riders. The Prefecture of Carchi supported the venture, but the day Rosero visited the school and invited the pupils to join his newly-constituted cycling club, Richard was away. His mother Anita had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Antonio was doing everything to see that she got the necessary treatment, which left Richard and his grandfather in charge of the smallholding. Eight cows needed milking by hand, 120 litres, and they had been difficult that morning, so he did not finish until 9am. School finished at 12.30, so it was hardly worth going.
The next day, his schoolmate Amilcar Pozo told him about Rosero. Richard went to see him and joined the club with 50 or 60 students. They started work with physical conditioning in January 2008, and the first pupils dropped out. Then, on the track in Tulcán, there were crashes and the group thinned out further.
Richard’s first proper race was the Vuelta al Retorno, a three-day stage race consisting of a time-trial, a 90km rolling stage and a climb around the town of Ibarra, a couple of hours from Tulcán. He won it and returned home with a trophy, a basket of food and some cash. He began to invest his prize money in equipment. He was just one of several good riders in that first intake.
“Amilcar Pozo was an amazing talent, but his father forced him into cycling, and he gave up as soon as he could,” he says. Richard’s wife Tania Rosero is unrelated to Juan Carlos but is Amilcar’s distant cousin. “And Juan Carlos Pozo could guarantee the team a podium place in any race, but they found a heart problem and he had to have open heart surgery.”
Both of the Pozos now drive trucks. Richard’s other schoolmates are farmers, teachers, housewives, security guards. An outsider might conclude that life in Carchi has little to offer. Richard would vehemently disagree: it offers birdsong, double rainbows, fertile fields, networks of human solidarity.
“You have to take your rain cape with you every time you go out. The weather changes quickly and the forecast is no help. There are supposed to be two satellites monitoring the weather here, but the only reliable forecast is when a peasant farmer looks up at the sky and tells you what way it is turning.”
The white, five-roomed house he grew up in stands at the top of a steep drive. Opposite, there is the crater of an extinct volcano. In the mornings, hummingbirds visit Anita Montenegro’s ranks of potted orchids, some of them the spoils of her son’s fishing trips. A keen catcher of the gigantic trout that abound in the many local rivers, Richard points out trees and fruit you might not know: chinguacán, related to papaya; mortiño, similar to blueberry; taxo, known in Colombia as curuba, a sort of passion fruit native to high altitude cloud forest; ovo, native to the area around Ibarra.
“Until I was ten, I had no idea there was an outside world. My mother would say, ‘Go and see how the birds sing’ or ‘Go and count the butterflies,’ and I did. I feel I come from another world. There are things I can’t explain to my team-mates. You have to come here to understand.”
The mountains above La Playa are covered with dense virgin forests of the Guandera Biological Reserve, alive with deer, tapir, spectacled bear and large rodents called mountain paca. The hillsides boil with natural springs.
“The Reserve is only semi-explored,” Richard told me. “The sort of terrain the guerrillas liked to hide in.” The Colombian border is only two or three kilometres away. There is no road on the Colombian side, so the illegal armed groups used this one, which runs parallel. In the 1990s and 2000s, his father Antonio was held up twice by Colombian armed groups. He still remembers the ants crawling on his skin as he lay on the ground, his hands zip-tied behind his back.
“When I was a child, there were always FARC attacks, car bombs, and so on, the other side of the border,” Richard recalls. “They closed the crossings from time to time, but you got used to it: they always opened again.”
If the threat of violence from across the border expanded Richard’s world as far as neighbouring Colombia, the arrival in Carchi of Alexander Vinokourov and the Astana team for a training camp in 2009 must have exploded his horizons. Vinokourov had discovered the country in 1995, riding for the Kazakh national team, for whom he won two stages of the Tour of Ecuador.
“I went out riding with them. They returned every year for several years. In Europe, Alexey Lutsenko came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you the guy I met in Ecuador?’”
Twice the national junior champion on the road, Richard also won bronze medals in the individual pursuit and Madison on the track. Then, in 2010, Juan Carlos Rosero decided it was time his protege competed in the cycling superpower to the north. He called the Colombian ex-sprinter Oliverio Cárdenas in Bogotá. Cárdenas, having no berth left in his own team, recommended Richard to Canapro-Bogotá. Richard won two stages and finished fourth overall in the 2010 Vuelta del Porvenir, the Colombian national tour for 17 – and 18-year-olds, just ahead of his future team-mate Sebastián Henao.
Twelve months later, Richard found himself in long distance attacks on two mountain stages with the Colombian rider Miguel Ángel López. Friends and rivals through the age categories and as WorldTour professionals, they share a passion for fishing. In January 2019, Richard rode Miguel Ángel’s Gran Fondo, and the two men went trout fishing together.
Richard has lived in the small town of Julio Andrade, 24 kilometres from Tulcán, since 2013 when his team at the time, RPM-Ecuador, insisted its riders move there. “At the time I thought I would be staying there for the rest of my career, so I bought land and began to build.”
His expectations changed at the Pan-American Championships under-23 road race in Zacatecas, Mexico in May 2013. “Juan Carlos had fixed it as my goal of the season. He said, ‘It will open the door to Colombia, and Colombia will open the door to Europe.’”
Richard duly finished the race alone, 1 minute 52 seconds ahead of the runner-up, the Colombian Isaac Bolívar Hernández. It was the finest spell of his career: a month later, he was competing in Europe for the first time with the Ecuadorian national team, riding the four-day Tour des Pays de Savoie in France as a 20-year-old in a peloton of elite riders, and finishing fourth, fifth and second in the first three stages, and ninth overall. But these remarkable achievements nearly came to nothing.
In March the following year, at the start of a training ride, he was hit by a car. The driver was on the phone. The sciatic nerve in his right leg was severed. The doctor doubted he could ever compete again. “I cried and cried,” he says.
It took two operations to put him right, although the leg is permanently swollen where the nerve is cut. In Rafael Correa’s Ecuador, the hospital was free, but Richard and his family still had to pay for rehab. Discarded by RPM-Ecuador, he returned to Panavial-Prefecture of Carchi. After just two weeks of training, they sent him to the Tour of South Bolivia.
“I didn’t think I’d finish, but I was best young rider one day, and I got in the breakaway another. Those results motivated me to carry on.”
The following January, he crossed the border to join the Medellín-based Strongman–Campagnolo team. In April 2015, he won the third stage of the Vuelta de la Juventud – the under-23 version of the Vuelta a Colombia – and pulled on the leader’s jersey. Twenty-four hours later, he reinforced his lead by winning atop the climb to Concordia. Three days after that, he became the race’s first non-Colombian champion. Tulcán received him as a hero. The parade took five hours.
It was a waypoint in a meteoric ascent. He started 2016 in Colombia riding for Strongman-Campagnolo Wilier. “I thought I would ride out my career there. Then [former pro] JuanJo Oróz called me directly.” He was signed to Movistar’s feeder team in Pamplona, Spain. In March, he travelled to Europe where, in an eight-week period between March and May 2016, he took four wins, four second places and a third, all the while gifting wins to team-mates, making friends and allies, earning admiration. By August he had become the first ever Ecuadorian on a WorldTour team, the team being Movistar. In 2018, he became the first to win a Grand Tour stage, and, in 2019, the first to win a Grand Tour tout court.
But if Richard did not make the WorldTour until he was 23, it is not because he was a late developer or benefitted from some suspicious change in performance level. It is because Ecuador lies very much in the margins of the world sports system, so unfamiliar with winning that before the processional final stage of his victorious Giro d’Italia, his father tells me that the locals were still betting against him.
Richard explains: “They thought it was impossible for an Ecuadorian to win. That is Ecuador: we have a culture of losing, of being unable to take decisions. When I was wearing the maglia rosa, everyone thought I would crash or something would happen.”
And Ecuador must be the only country in the world where one of its greatest sports stars can travel by bus without being mobbed. In the weeks before my visit, Richard’s mother Anita had suffered a stroke and she had been taken to Ibarra for medical treatment. It was a couple of hours away, and lower down, so much warmer. Richard’s sister Cristina was going to care for her there, so he had lent Antonio his 4×4 overnight, to move a bed and other necessities. The following morning, we flagged down the Ibarra bus and climbed aboard, only to be delayed as the peloton of the Vuelta a Ecuador came past. Richard had to smile: it has always been an unlucky race for him.
“As an under-23 [in 2013], I was second to Fredy Montaña, and then, in 2014, I led the race going into the final stage, crashed, got up, chased, but lost the race to my team-mate Juan Carlos Pozo by a second.”
The 2019 edition had been postponed when violent demonstrations flared up following president Lenín Moreno’s decision to end fuel subsidies, one of the preconditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund before approving $4.2 billion in loans.
“Three quarters of Ecuadorians are poor,” Richard explains. “A third of them live in extreme poverty. If you raise fuel prices, you raise the price of everything. The minimum wage is $380 a month. If you cut the fuel subsidy, you have to raise the minimum wage.”
As a result, he had supported, not the violence, but the cause of the rural poor. Like his insistence of his indigenous identity, it is an early signal of intent to bring success in the realm of globalised sport to bear on local realities – to deploy globalisation against its own uniformalising tendencies.
Of course, globalisation reached this part of the world half a millennium ago, in the form of European invaders and slave traders. We see the proof as our bus descends into sugar-growing regions: black villages whose inhabitants speak Palenquero, a fascinating and unique creole developed among descendants of Africans who escaped slavery and gathered in fortified refuges called palenques, where their different African tongues mixed with the Spanish and Portuguese of their enslavers.
“I love the way they speak: it is very sweet,” Richard says.
I ask him how different he feels when he is with his European team-mates, the Venn diagram of his soul being so crowded with overlapping circles, all of them unusual in cycling: Ecuadorian, campesino, Amerindian.
“And Afro-descendant,” he volunteers.
“Through my mother. Her father is black. Her brothers and sisters are dark-skinned."
This must be how Nibali and Roglič felt during the 2019 Giro. Each time you think you have captured Richard Carapaz, he escapes you.
In Ibarra, his mother was up and about, speaking slowly, with a gentle slur but otherwise apparently well, of motherhood. Dissenters from the orthodoxy of hard parenting common in peasant farming families, she and Antonio were gentle with their children. They could not bear to hear them cry: one day when Marcela was small, Antonio’s itinerary allowed him to eat at home. He pulled the truck over to eat, only to find that Anita had forgotten to cook because she was comforting her daughter.
Even so, they only ever argued once: when Richard was four, she looked in puzzlement at the hillside opposite, making out the car, the cows and her husband. But who was driving? Antonio had taken their son with him to collect 150 quintals of potatoes, but found that the cows had wandered free. Antonio had put the car in first gear and set his son to steer it home, with Antonio and the cows walking behind.
“He could have been killed,” Anita chastised her husband. But Antonio had faith in the boy.
“In those days, all the roads were strade bianche” – white roads, gravel roads, like those used in the Tuscan semi-classic. “They were great, especially when it rained. My mother used to say, ‘You don’t have to do the washing.’ In those days, the washing was by hand. Washing machines only came later. And they only started laying asphalt in 2011."
As a result, he loves Strade Bianche. “The first time I rode it, I was working for Amador and I crashed at the same time as Peter Sagan. The second time, I chose the wrong line on Sante Marie, my wheel span in the mud and I went down. By the time I got up, the race had gone. I like the roads, and Siena is beautiful.”
Another favourite training route with a connection to Italian cycling is the climb up Volcano Chiles across the border in Colombia. “It is very similar to the Finestre: the same surface, the same gradients. In the 2018 Giro, I congratulated Froome after his ride there. He said to me, ‘You are really strong. One of the strongest here.’”
Yet there is a paradoxical quality to that strength. His greatest triumph, in the 2019 Giro, was achieved against the backdrop of his beloved grandfather’s fatal illness. The period when Richard became the first foreign rider to win Colombia’s Vuelta de la Juventud for under-23 riders was darkened by the death of his maternal grandmother. Going back further, the months following Juan Carlos Rosero’s harrowing death in 2013 were successful ones for Richard. And his very beginnings as a cyclist coincided with his mother’s diagnosis with breast cancer. All of which suggests a mind capable somehow of reframing debilitating, life-impairing events into competitive motivation – or turning negatives into positives. Or, put the other way round, of using cycling, competing, winning, as a means of processing and overcoming grief. When I put this to him, he thought for a while, then replied: “Perhaps, yes. Perhaps it has to do with our faith in God, and that everything happens for a reason.”
Although a Roman Catholic, Richard discussed the parables with Juan Carlos Rosero, an evangelical Christian known for the positive thinking and sound advice he passed on to his most talented pupil. After all, it was Juan Carlos who suggested that Richard start paying voluntary biological passport fees to the Ecuadorian Sports Ministry in 2012. When he arrived at Movistar four years later, they were amazed he had a biological passport.
But good advice is wasted on those incapable of taking it. Richard Carapaz’s ability to assimilate information and put it to the best possible effect was demonstrated during the 2019 Giro by the perfectly timed attacks that gave him the race lead and the intelligent defensive riding that secured it. Without the benefit of reconnaissance, he used free-to-view online maps and satellite images each evening to analyse the key sections of the following day’s stage, including the descent from the Colma di Sormano on stage 15. “I counted the bends – there were about 80 of them. I worked out roughly when I needed to brake, and that was how I stayed with Nibali, who knows every curve.”
His Giro win gave Ecuador its greatest sporting moment since Jefferson Pérez’s 1996 Olympic gold medal in the 20km walk. But Richard’s victory is also to be celebrated for the sustenance that the kaleidoscope of his identity gives unfashionable ideas like diversity, inclusion, and the fellowship of humankind. The multi-coloured shards of culture and history reflected there make cycling relevant to the world beyond its European heartlands.
I met Richard again at February’s Tour Colombia, riding for his new team, Ineos, and with new perspectives. “At Movistar I always had to fight for my position,” he explained. “Alejandro [Valverde] and Nairo had much greater achievements than me and deserved respect. I received an offer and thought: ‘I’m young, change is sometimes for the better and if I turn out to be wrong, it’ll be a lesson learned.’
“I don’t think I have ever been so almost in form, if I can put it that way, so early, because we came to Colombia two weeks before the race for the first team training camp of my career. The squad is very organised and I didn’t have to worry about a thing. It was a pretty big difference. Dave [Brailsford] told me, ‘Don’t change your routine too much, because it has made you a Grand Tour champion. We have to adjust to you, not you to us.’ It sounds silly, but it is very wise, eh?”
Thinking of his old team and characteristically setting aside his own unusual talent, he says, “I won the 2019 Giro thanks to good tactics and team-mates. With all these new methods, the results of which I can already see, it gives me peace of mind. When I do everything right, I know my limits. But I have never explored what is beyond them.”
It is time for Richard Carapaz.