Rouleur's Top Ten Features: No. 4 - Richard Carapaz: Strong like the wind

Farm life, fishing and first places: at home with Giro d'Italia champion Richard Carapaz in Ecuador, charting his cycling beginnings

As we eagerly await the 100th issue of Rouleur, we're counting down our top ten features ever published in the magazine. In 5th place it's 'The extraordinary world of Richard Carapaz' by Matt Rendell from issue 20.3.

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 4x4 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 climbed down, woke up my father (below) and told him I wanted it. I rode it until the tyres had worn down to nothing and I was riding on the metal rims.”

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This is an edited extract of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 20.3

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. His father 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.

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“Amilcar Pozo was an amazing talent, but his father forced him into cycling, and he gave up as soon as he could,” he says. “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 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.”