Richard Carapaz became the pride of Ecuador on Sunday after becoming the country’s first cyclist to win the Giro d’Italia, in a journey that has taken him from riding a bicycle without tyres in his native Andes to seeing off all-comers in the Alps and Dolomites of northern Italy.
The against-the-odds triumph capped the 26-year-old’s incredible rise from a humble background, riding a ‘skeleton’ bicycle his father found in a junk yard, to the highest level of the sport.
« We keep it as a family relic, » Carapaz’s 27-year-old sister Cristina told AFP, as she proudly showed off the rusty old blue BMX which sparked the dream.
Carapaz, now known as ‘The Locomotive’, used the makeshift bike to climb the dusty roads around the family’s modest house in the village of Playa Alta, high in the mountains of northern Ecuador, near the border with Colombia.
Selling milk represented the main source of income for the family, and young Richie worked in the fields.
« When I was a teenager. My mother had cancer and for some time I looked after the (three) cows, » he said.
Their father Antonio arrived home one day when with the small BMX which had no seat, no brakes or pedals.
The bicycle is now kept as a prized possession.
The walls of their home are also covered with medals, photos, and memorabilia, including the white jersey for the best young rider Carapaz won at the 2018 Giro d’Italia, with a dedication: « With a lot of love to my parents Ana and Antonio ».
There is also the jersey in which he won the Vuelta a Asturias in 2018.
If he had his first bike aged eight, Carapaz only began competition much later.
At 20 he was the best young rider at the Tour of Guatemala, the same year he won the U23 title at the PanAmerican Games.
Carapaz raced on local teams in Ecuador before his talent captured the attention of talent scouts.
Still in the U23 ranks, Carapaz linked up with a Colombian team, and became the first non-Colombian to win the Vuelta de la Juventud de Colombia.
– ‘Historic moment’ –
Colombian coach Luis Alfonso Cely describes Carapaz as a talented all-rounder.
« He is a great climber, he has a great power in the high mountains, he is a racer who defends well in the time trial, » Cely, who coached him at the Strongman-Campagnolo team, told AFP.
« He’s a very calm person, I think he is sensible enough to be able to cope, » added Cely of Carapaz’s Giro d’Italia success.
Carapaz moved to the Spanish Lizarte team in 2015 as a step towards Movistar, the team of 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana of Colombia and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, the 2018 world champion, which he joined the following year.
His sister said Lizarte invited Carapaz for a six months trial and without pay. « As always it was risky, but Richard said ‘I’m going’, » she recalled.
Carapaz’s parents watched as he became the first Ecuadorian cyclist to win a stage in a Grand Tour in Italy in 2018.
They travelled to Verona along with his wife Tanya Rosero and two children, Santiago aged five, and two-year-old Sofia, to celebrate his achievement on Sunday.
« It’s an historic moment in Ecuador, » said Tanya.
When he returns he will be honoured in his village with his favourite food — grilled Cuy (guinea pig) with potatoes, mellocos (a vegetable that grows in the Andes) and beans, and sweetened morocho (hard corn) with milk.
A cycling school in his native village bears his name and a dozen students aged between nine and 17 years train there.
« It’s a largely unknown sport in my country, » said Carapaz. « I want to be an example to those young people, those children, if they have a dream in life that they fight, work for it.