With a rapidly growing contingent of young Spanish-speaking riders, you might expect Team Ineos – the meticulous masters of detail – to have invested in someone to bring them up to speed with English to try to integrate them more smoothly into the British team. So who has Richard Carapaz been using as his language tutor since he signed for the squad this year? He smiles a warm, endearing smile and with an almost guilty laugh he says, “Spongebob.”
The Ecuadorian starts our interview with a jovial “hey man”, a greeting that was probably all the reigning Giro d’Italia champion could muster in English when he joined Team Ineos from Movistar last winter.
“When I first met the team in Majorca in December at our training camp, my English was zero,” he reveals to Cycling Weekly. “But now I can say one or two things, order some food and I understand things when others are talking. I think in a few months I will improve a lot.”
And that’s where the yellow Squarepants-wearing sponge comes into our conversation, as it turns out that it is the TV programme, a children’s favourite, that he watches most frequently to help his language development. “I like cartoons and it’s one of my favourites.
“I know some of the episodes off by heart and from memory so I repeat them in English and learn from it. There are many good episodes to learn from.”
So what about his first name – one of the most Anglo in existence? There have even been three kings of England that he shares his name with. Another infectious smile. “Well, my mum knew a person that had the name Richard and she and my dad liked him a lot and the name. So because they liked him a lot, they called me after him. That’s simply it.”
Is it common in Ecuador? “I think in my town, in the area where I live, there are very few Richards.” There might be more now that he is the reigning Giro d’Italia champion, we suggest. “Ha! Possibly, maybe. More baby Richards.”
This baby Richard was raised in rural surroundings in El Carmelo in northern Ecuador, 800km from the capital Quito and at around 3,000m of altitude. His young life revolved around animals.
“When I lived with my parents, we didn’t live deep in the countryside, we didn’t have a big farm, but we had a lot of animals,” he says.
“We had cows, hens, turkeys, pigs. It is not really a cosy place, but it is a place that I always return to, especially with the kids because I enjoy it a lot.”
Carapaz spent the majority of lockdown back home, living away from his parents’ house and animals in a pueblo “a little bit bigger and a little different”. But he visited his parents a lot and his Instagram shows him milking a cow in late June.
Are animals important to him? “Yes. I like them a lot. I enjoy them. But above all it is peaceful and tranquil. Waking up there is wonderful. It is really calming and my wife and I go a lot.”
In neighbouring Colombia, cycling is steeped in history and its riders enjoy a level of fame that few other sportsmen do. But for Carapaz, professional cycling was as distant a dream as any.
“When I was a child, I never thought about cycling at an elite level or in the WorldTour,” he says. “I simply did it because I enjoyed it and nothing more.
“I was never thinking about being in a good team, with seven or eight team-mates to win a Grand Tour. These were things I just never thought about.”
But then Carapaz started to show promise. “When I started racing at a higher level, training with a road bike, with cleats, with Lycra, training like this, well, then it became something else. I started to know more, to search more on the internet. I read about big tours, Monuments, small races, big races, and each time I became more interested.
“Poco a poco – little by little – I knew more about the sport.” And since then? “The truth is that it has gone super well.”
The main ingredient: “I believe to continue enjoying the bike has been the most important thing and that is what has brought me here.”
We speak to Carapaz at the Vuelta a Burgos, cycling’s first big race since the lockdowns across the world. Third in 2019, Carapaz finished sixth last week, in just his second race for Ineos.
Sir Dave Brailsford signed him as the team’s latest Grand Tour leader having become the first Ecuadorian to win one of cycling’s three-week races last spring when he triumphed in Italy.
Then riding for Movistar, he won two stages and topped the general classification by 65 seconds from Vincenzo Nibali.
His maiden Grand Tour victory prompted huge celebrations in his country and it was seen as somewhat of a surprise by many observers, with his only previous two GC victories being at the Vuelta a Asturias.
Chris Froome’s impending departure, and Geraint Thomas’s advancing years means that Carapaz, 2019 Tour de France victor Egan Bernal and Pavel Sivakov are regarded as the future of the British team. It is a team obsessed and driven by the yellow jersey – and Carapaz is no different. “The objective that I have here with this team is to win a Tour de France,” he says.
“I don’t know if that will be next year as the calendar might change with the pandemic, and also it’s an Olympic year and that’s very important to me, but the Tour is a goal for me.”
The admission, though not entirely surprising, could pose another team leadership problem in ensuing years. Bernal, four years Carapaz’s junior, may not want to sacrifice his own chances.
“I think we have different points of view,” he says of himself and Bernal. “I think he has dreams and things to fulfil, and I do too, but they are not the same.
“I do not know about the team’s plans of who is leader or a super-domestique, but each of us has our own objectives and that is totally clear. I have not thought about [internal rivalry], but all I will do is the best for the team.”
Leading Ineos, the most successful Grand Tour team of the past decade, comes with a weight of expectation. Not that the incredibly calm Carapaz realises it. “Pues, presión, presión, presión. No la tengo – Well, pressure, pressure, pressure. I don’t have it.”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.