The phrase “keeping it real” might have been coined for Hugh Carthy.
The 22-year-old Briton deflects complements gracefully, even though his breakthrough season and swift promotion to World Tour team Cannondale-Drapac deserves nothing but praise.
Carthy cuts a striking figure, even among the ultra-lean community of professional cyclists. With his buzz cut, earring and laconic demeanour, he has something of the British rock star or film actor about him.
He lowers his 6’2”, sub-10 stone frame onto a high stool at the bar of the team hotel, and even when seated, is taller than your correspondent. The surroundings and personnel are new to him, but he looks at home.
“You can express yourself a bit more in a team like this,” Carthy says. “You don’t have to wear this tracksuit on that day, in this colour. You can wear a pair of jeans. You can have your hair cut in a different way. You can speak in a certain way – respectfully, of course.
“Tradition in a lot of ways goes out of the window. It’s a modern-thinking team. I think that’s the best way to put it. It’s bang up-to-date in the way it thinks. Let the riders be who they want to be. Let the riders be happy, but get the best performance.”
Welcome to Cannondale-Drapac then, Hugh Carthy. He insists he could fit into a wide range of teams, but his new environment appears to suit him well. Team owners Slipstream Sports have a philosophy of doing things differently.
“Cannondale was the one I wanted,” he says of his suitors from cycling’s top tier. While many were enticed by Carthy’s 2016 campaign, one that yielded overall victory at the Vuelta Asturias and a top-ten finish at the Volta a Catalunya, Slipstream’s Charly Wegelius was ahead of the pack.
“I’d spoken to him for a year or so; getting to know him,” Carthy confides. “He’d explain what the team was about. They were interested in speaking to me very early on and they sold their team to me very well.
“The last few months of last season, they had some really strong results with young riders. I was glad to see that. You know that if the younger riders are performing, the support is there. The older riders have learned their trade for five, six, seven, eight years or more, and they know how to look after themselves, regardless of the team, but when the young riders are doing well, that’s a good sign, I think.”
Students of professional cycling, and of Carthy’s young career, will note the similarity of his approach to the path ridden by Wegelius. Both left England for Continental Europe, determined to do things their own way.
For Wegelius, racing in an era when the peloton’s British constituency was tiny, and at home the sport was a minority interest at best, going your own way was a matter of necessity. Carthy, however, is a member of the first generation to reap the whirlwind of success wrought by riders like Mark Cavendish and Brad Wiggins.
It’s a measure of Carthy’s success that he is often spoken of as “the one that got away” from British Cycling’s vaunted Olympic Academy, though he insists that he and the national federation simply followed separate agendas.
“People think I’m trying to stick two fingers up to the system,” he says, bemused. “People say, ‘I bet you’re glad you went without them.’ No, I’ve just done it the way I’ve done it.
“Everything fell into place for me, one step after the other. British Cycling was never part of that process, and I was never part of their process. It’s as simple as that. I’ve not got a problem with British Cycling, and I’m sure they’ve not got a problem with me. We just never coincided. And that’s it.”
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to escape the sense that the British federation missed a trick by failing to get an early lock on Carthy’s services. Granted, he does not have a pursuiter’s physique, but it’s possible that in Carthy’s case, British Cycling’s obsession with track cycling’s blue riband event cost them a very special climbing talent.
No matter. Carthy went his own way, first joining John Herety’s Condor-backed continental outfit, a respected feeder team with which he won the 2014 Tour de Korea. Later, he joined the second-tier Caja Rural. Moving to Spain without a word of Spanish would be a daunting prospect for most 20-year-olds. Carthy embraced the challenge.
“I went to a training camp in November 2014, for about three or four days. I was nervous, like coming here,” he says, gesturing at his new colleagues, a crowd of familiar strangers. Then, the kicker: “I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish.”
“We had a couple of nights out, and after that you get on better with the people and you’re more relaxed. I spoke a bit more. I went to the training camp in January, for 10 days, and after that, I was pretty good.”
Wegelius has spoken of how impressed he’d been by Carthy’s resourcefulness when considering adding him to the Cannodale-Drapac roster. There can be few better examples than his determination to master a foreign language. It offers a fascinating insight into Carthy’s character, and his approach to his career.
“You pick it up quick,” he shrugs. “In a way, you have no choice. It’s as simple as that. I’m not massively intellectual, but I’m not stupid by any means. I could study, get good grades, but I’m not an intellectual, conscientious person by nature, so if I can learn it, I think anyone can.”
He pauses, then adds: “Without doing myself a disservice.“
But he does, surely. Not conscientious? Everyone I’ve spoken to about Carthy – including Wegelius and Herety – have been impressed by his dedication, his resourcefulness, his desire to make the most of his talent.
“On the bike, yes,” he says, by way of clarification. “In school, no. I prefer to be more hands on. I consider cycling as a trade, so…”
He pauses, as if considering the parallel between elite cyclist and skilled tradesmen for the first time.
“Academic? No. I prefer to learn a trade, using my hands, something quite physical. Yeah, I consider cycling a trade.”
He began to take cycling seriously around the age of 16. By 17, it had become a full-time occupation. Everything about Carthy suggests a grafter. His tradesman analogy fits him well. Carthy is from Preston, Lancashire, a modest town in northern England, and his is a very northern cool. Straight talking. No bullshit. No fear. No weakness.
“I like Preston,” he says, assertive, if not defensive. “I’m glad I’m from Preston. It’s a traditional, working-class town. The people there are down to earth. You can speak to anybody, get on with anybody, on any social level. That’s a really good quality to have.”
Taken in this context, Carthy’s Spanish sojourn doesn’t seem quite so extreme. Perhaps Pamplona is not so different to Preston in matters of importance, such as honesty and humility, even if the climate, some 1,300km south of Lancashire, is more conducive to training.
“At first, I was completely on my own,” he says, and just as one suspects a chink in that armor of northern cool, normal service is resumed. “It wasn’t too bad,” he continues, with a chuckle. “It wasn’t like cowboys and Indians out there. Spain is a first-world country. It isn’t like going back in time or anything.”
Carthy speaks fondly of his time with Caja Rural, but is eager to begin the next chapter of his career with Cannnondale-Drapac. The World Tour is the pinnacle, and Slipstream’s team is a bigger, better-funded outfit, and with more accomplished riders. Carthy states all of this as matters of fact.
“The overall level is higher. I’ll be able to learn more again. That’s what I’ll be doing for the first few months of the season: sussing everything out, seeing what’s what. Learn your place within the team. Then after that, you’ll go racing, get stuck in, and, yeah, see what’s what.”
He seems slightly aghast when I ask if he has any specific goals for 2017 (“No!”), his first in the WorldTour, even if not his first campaign against WorldTour opposition.
“I’ve had two years of racing WorldTour teams, being at the bottom of the shit pile, so I know how to fight…” he pauses. “I think I do.”
“I’ve had to earn respect a lot more, coming from a small team, and being a foreign rider on a small team. I’ve had quite a few hurdles to overcome to do well in races. When you’ve had to climb up that ladder yourself, to get into a top team, I think you appreciate it a lot more.”
Those watching him take the fight to double Grand Tour winner Nairo Quintana on the queen stage of the Route du Sud, as well as in Catalunya, will know that Carthy does not fear reputation. Both races were thrilling demonstrations of a blossoming talent; early shows of strength that, should he fulfil his ultimate potential, will one day fill highlights reels.
Carthy, typically, is having none of it. He’ll leave it to fans (and journalists) to romanticize his attacks against the best riders in the world. From his perspective, he was merely fulfilling a plan; making good on years of hard work.
“Those were targeted events that I wanted to perform well in, and where the team wanted me to perform. I’d say, I want to do a top five in that race, so that’s what I did. Or that’s what I try to do.”
He is not being blasé. When I joke that he makes it sound easy, he insists that it is anything but. From Carthy’s perspective, it is the job of a professional cyclist to plan for events, to prepare specifically for those where he might be effective, to arrive in shape and to perform.
“When you’re there and it’s going to plan, you don’t really think about it,” he says. “When it’s not going to plan, that’s when you’ve got to think about it. It weighs on you.”
Carthy has long been professional, even if his association with Cannondale-Drapac marks his arrival in the sport’s top tier. For those inside the bunch, the term has a meaning beyond salary arrangements. It refers to how a rider conducts himself, on and off the bike. Carthy has studied the peloton’s road captains and learned.
“We had a few of those [at Caja Rural]. It’s good to learn from people like that,” he says.
“They made good calls at the right times. They recognized the atmosphere within the team and make a decision based on that. If everyone was in good spirits, they’d shut it down early and say, ‘Right, everyone off to bed. Big day tomorrow.’ But if it had been a shit day, they’d say, ‘Come on. Get a beer. Have a drink before bed and tomorrow’s another day. We’ll pick ourselves up.’
“On the bike, because they’re professional, they’re quiet, respectful, good to follow in the bunch, able to tell you what you’ve done wrong, what you’ve done right. That’s important.”
In such a young team as Cannondale-Drapac, the riders can look also to the team’s vastly experienced management team, the likes of Wegelius, Jonathan Vaughters and Andreas Klier, for example.
Carthy is determined to start the 2017 campaign in good shape and not waste precious race days and the chance to show himself. He is confident that Cannondale-Drapac’s egalitarian structure will offer him the chance to shine, should he find himself – as at last season’s Route du Sud, on the Col du Tourmalet, with Quintana for company – with a chance to do so.
“They haven’t got a formula set for every race,” he explains. “At the bigger races, you have to put trust in someone with a history, someone with a good track record, but I think some of the riders, on their day, can have a go, so I should be ok.”
In a Slipstream team these days built almost entirely on young talent – Davide Formolo, Joe Dombrowski, Ryan Mullen, Alberto Bettiol, to name only a few – opportunities should come frequently.
Carthy has not been disinclined to take his chances thus far, and is unlikely to freeze in the spotlight, should it fall on him again, just because he is wearing the signature green of Cannondale-Drapac. The cycling world will monitor his progress with interest.