Richard Carapaz went into the Giro in the shadow of Movistar team leader Mikel Landa. He ended it by making history for Ecuador, becoming their greatest sports star ever. It was a performance of controlled aggression and calm, tactical lucidity. As others’ challenges fell away, Carapaz unfussily rode to a victory he could finally celebrate in the extraordinary setting of the Verona Arena.
The following essay is taken from The Road Book 2019, available to buy now from the Rouleur Emporium
There is a photograph of me standing on the stage in Verona. I am bent over my bike almost as if I were praying. I’ll tell you what was going through my mind.
I was a child again, pleading with my mother to let me ride my bike to school. She was saying no because I was still too small and the bike too big.
Then I was 15 again and it was the day Juan Carlos Rosero came to school and invited the pupils to join his cycling club – and we did, all 60 of us.
Then it was the day I won my first race, and then the day they called me to say that Juan Carlos was no more, and I thought it was a joke because he’d only dropped me off an hour and a half before. I went quickly to the hospital, hoping there was some mistake, and he had simply passed out after our run together that morning, but it was true, and I learned at that moment that nothing in life is certain. It can change in the blink of an eye.
That is how long it took all those thoughts to pass through my head as I bowed over my bike like a question mark in the pose made permanent in that photograph.
And here I was, the winner of the Giro d’Italia, in the blink of an eye.
I come from a country with a culture of losing, where people are plagued by doubt to the point that they are unable to take decisions. When I was wearing the maglia rosa, everyone thought I would crash, or something would happen, because it was impossible for an Ecuadorian to win.
I knew I had a great opportunity to show that my fourth place and stage win the previous year were not down to luck, so I prepared as if the team would be working for me. Then Mikel Landa crashed and his calendar was rejigged so that he would go to the Giro before riding the Tour.
I’ve always had to work for a leader – I’ve never been the leader or shared leadership with another rider, especially not one of Mikel’s status. I took it as a learning opportunity. Even so, I prepared as if I was going to be riding for myself. No offence, Mikel. In any case, at the pre-race press conference, no one had any questions for me.
Ecuadorians don’t win, they say back home. So, when I started off losing, little wonder. 47 seconds in the opening time trial, then 46 to a mechanical problem, and then a crash in stage 2. I didn’t mind about the time trial – I’m no specialist and I think I rode a good stage. It confirmed to me that I had the legs to fight for the podium. However, after the mechanical and the crash, I could feel the Giro slipping between my fingers like sand.
When I reached the hotel, I called my wife, Tania. She put me straight. She reminded me of Froome’s Giro the previous year. The next day I started again. It was stage 1 again. The first three stages had never happened.
On the uphill finish that day, at Frascati, I attacked 600 metres before the line. I knew it would be impossible to beat Caleb Ewan in a sprint, but I thought that, if I went long, I could make it.
I calculated that the effort was going to last one minute. I attacked and didn’t look back until I had crossed the finish line. No one came past. The previous day, I had been losing time. Now I was gaining it and winning.
Mikel Landa had lost more time than me, and I knew he would attack on the climb to Lago Serrù.
The TV motorbikes caught his move. I nearly caught him, although no one saw me. The stage ended at an altitude of 2200 metres. I live at 3000 metres, so it didn’t affect me at all. For me it was like being at home, and my confidence was sky-high. Everyone was looking at Mikel, Nibali and Roglicˇ.
I was invisible to my rivals and to the public. I think that influenced the whole race.
That night, the lad from Canyon – he is the brand rep or something – came to our hotel. He was talking to one of the mechanics, a friend of mine called Tomás Amezaga. As I walked past them I said to Tomás, ‘Tell him to start preparing a pink bike for me because we’re going to be wearing pink.’
It was a joke and they both laughed, but I also knew it was possible.
The following day, with 28km to go, I attacked, to see who could go with me. There were 3km to go to the top of the Colle San Carlo. I had very good legs and I went so fast that I led by 30 seconds at the top. I reckoned they would gain 15 seconds on the descent, but I reached the foot of the next climb with 25 seconds left of my lead, and the final ramp suited me perfectly. It was a power climb, fast, and I made the most of it. They can’t have imagined I would gain enough time to take the jersey.
I added to my lead at Anterselva on stage 17. Mikel attacked first. I knew Miguel Ángel López would have a go and, sure enough, with 2km remaining, he went and I went with him. It was all against all, and everyone was on the limit. A gap had opened, and I continued the attack. I gained 7 seconds that day – a big reward for me, in view of the final time trial in Verona.
I started the last stage with an advantage of 1 minute 54 seconds, and I could decide how to distribute them because, as the last man to start, I had everyone else’s times as a reference. At the first split, I was losing 33 seconds to Nibali, but I had no reason to take any risks because I still had 1 minute 20 to play with over the final 7.5km. I took the descent calmly, knowing that I had to push on in the final 3km. With 1km to go, there was a section of pavé where the bike handling got tricky, but I played safe. I knew I had time.
Back home, people were betting against me as I rode – at the very moment I was proving them wrong. Ecuadorians can win. I’m the living proof. Still, looking at that photograph on the stage in Verona, it occurs to me that there are no photographs of me with Juan Carlos Rosero, my first coach, my second father.
We shared so many moments together, we were so close that, training and travelling to race in Ecuador and Colombia, it never occurred to either of us to stop and take a photograph. And I know how much he would have liked this one.