In early 2016, I travelled to Caja Rural’s winter training camp in southern Spain. The only journalist there, I had an hour and a half with the dry, chatty Hugh Carthy.
Knowing he had already been living in the Basque Country months, I asked him beforehand if he wanted me to bring any luxurys from the UK. He asked for two bags of Revels chocolates. Fair enough; I obliged. When asked about them at the end of the season, he said he’d eaten one there and saved the second for the end of the season, nine months later. Discipline: it’s a bag of sweets.
Four years on, Carthy is a Grand Tour contender and has the queen Angliru stage of the Vuelta in his back pocket. But those formative years living in the Basque Country provided him with crucial foundations for his success.
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. Hugh Carthy’s mind was made up to join a smaller squad: Cannondale-Drapac in 2016.
It was just the latest in a series of bold decisions in his formative years. The climber spent the early years of his career off the radar, racing for Spanish second-tier team Caja Rural-Seguros RGA in 2015 and 2016.
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 headed to Wikipedia to learn the roster and find out more about Caja Rural. The pure climber was a good fit, even if he sticks out like a sore thumb on the team, due to his nationality, lanky build and Schleck-esque matchstick limbs.
Pamplona is a long way from his Lancastrian hometown of Preston, but Carthy was unphased by the obstacles. He moved into the shared team house in the Basque city and picked up Spanish in a matter of months. There was no hint of homesickness.
“I’m glad to be here. 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 think they have good principles here. 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 also a good way of describing Carthy’s own route from Preston to the WorldTour via Pamplona. Brave, unorthodox and unglamorous, yet effective.
“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. It’s the best thing to do.”
His 2015 and 2016 with Caja Rural proved a valuable apprenticeship in what he calls “bread-and-butter racing”. The team predominantly toured the European circuit of European .1 and hors-catégorie races, meaning tough tests like the Giro del Trentino and the “relentless” Volta a Portugal.
With a €3.5 million total budget that wouldn’t even pay for Chris Froome’s annual contract, Caja Rural made their resources go a long way. Nine times out of ten, the squad drove to races, leading to whole days spent in a team car for Carthy on the way to far-flung French outposts.
His time in Spain 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.”
His breakthrough result came at the 2016 Volta a Catalunya. 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. Carthy duly finished ninth overall and best young rider; it was no longer a case of Hugh who.
Back then, he was a rough diamond who already recognised the need to strengthen against the clock, having spent his early years barely touching his TT bike outside of races. Ever proactive, he spent time over winter on time-trialling forums, gleening information on his aerodynamic position.
“I’ve looked at a lot of GC-type riders of similar physical stature to me,” he said. “Riders like Wiggins, Froome, taller, skinnier riders, and tried to copy their positions as much as possible.”
Back then, Carthy dubbed 2016 “probably the most important year of my career,” given his WorldTour ambitions and expiring Caja Rural contract. Team Sky got in contact that spring but according to Carthy, it never went as far as negotiations because his heart was already set on joining Cannondale-Drapac, where he signed a two-year deal.
The move has richly paid off. Since then, Carthy’s stock has only gone up, with a Tour de Suisse solo breakaway stage win last year before an impressive Tour de France and his even more eyecatching 2020 Vuelta a Espana.
The words of his directeur sportif Charly Wegelius from 2016 still ring true today: “Beyond his results, the thing that really impresses me about Hugh is the way he’s gone about achieving what he’s achieved,” Wegelius says. “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. He’s done it the hard way.”