There have been a number of high-profile rider transfers this summer but the one that really stands out above all was Richard Carapaz upping sticks at Ineos Grenadiers and moving to EF Education-EasyPost on a three-year deal.
It’s a move that makes perfect sense for both the rider and his future team with Carapaz granted center stage throughout the coming years and EF securing the only grand tour winner on the market in the prime of his career. This has the potential to be one of the most successful transfers in the last decade and it totally provides the American team with a huge boost.
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But how did one of the summer’s most significant signings come about?
To understand the dynamics of the transfer one needs to wind the clock back to 2019. That season EF Education First, as it was known then, were in a healthy state. The team had come through a period of financial instability thanks to its title sponsor and donations from fans, while the roster was deep on talent and personality. Mike Woods, Rigoberto Uran, Dani Martinez, Sergio Higuita, Hugh Carthy, and Alberto Bettiol were all enlisted, and this was a team that could fight on a number of fronts.
Then COVID-19 happened.
As a company that thrived on international travel students moving freely across borders, EF suddenly had to make major cuts and the cycling team was not immune. Riders with existing contracts in 2020 were offered replicant deals for the following year but when Ineos Grenadiers came knocking for Martinez, and then several other big hitters smelt blood, there was no realistic chance of keeping the core of the team together.
Higuita stayed for one more year but then departed for Bora-Hansgrohe, while the team management was forced to be creative in the transfer market. No major arrivals came through the doors in 2020 or 2021, with Michael Valgren and Neilson Powless representing the headline signings.
Two years went by without a true marquee transfer but heading into 2022 the situation began to improve in terms of finances. Travel restrictions were lifted, EF’s funds began to improve, and suddenly team boss Jonathan Vaughters had a financial runway that went further than the length of the team bus. The loss of key riders in 2020 and 2021 are not directly linked to signing Carapaz but they certainly mesh when it comes to the team’s linear history and development.
“You know, Higuita stayed out of obligation in 2021 but both here and Martinez were essentially lost in 2020,” Vaughters tells VeloNews during a call to his home in Colorado.
“During the depths of the pandemic and the economic slowdown we were hurt in ways some teams weren’t and that left us making cuts. The decision on Richard wasn’t made until much later, when EF’s business was improving and travel began to improve. Losing those guys and signing Richard were two independent factors though. We had to go through a couple of years of just surviving and getting to the end of the month and the end of the year. Then we could look at rebuilding the roster back to where we were in 2019.”
Top of the shopping list
For those who don’t know, Carapaz is managed by super agent Giuseppe Acquadro. The Italian looks after the interests of several major stars from the Ineos pairing of Egan Bernal and Carlos Rodriguez, to EF’s current riders Rigoberto Uran and Esteban Chaves. Acquadro is hugely influential and every team boss in the world – minus Trek – has his number on speed dial. Vaughter is no exception in that regard, admitting to VeloNews that he talks to the agent ‘two or three times a week, at least’.
So, come the start of 2022, Vaughters knew full well that Carapaz was on the market. The Olympic champion had enjoyed success at Ineos Grenadiers with grand tour podium spots, and of course his medal in Tokyo, but when it came to a pecking order at Ineos the Ecuadorian was always scrambling behind Bernal. Put it this way, he was interested in seeing what was out there in terms of future offers.
Initially it looked as though a move back to Movistar might be on the cards. The Spanish team was and is desperate for leaders, while Ineos appeared willing to allow Carapaz to leave, even after Egan Bernal’s major accident.
At the same time, EF and Vaughters had been linked with a move for another Ineos Grenadiers rider on the market, Tom Pidcock. The British all-rounder had been shopped around by his representatives throughout the spring with the American team, Bora-Hansgrohe and his existing squad all interested.
However, realistically a move to EF was never truly feasible due to the numbers Pidcock was looking for.
“The Pidcock situation was never really on in terms of being a serious discussion,” says Vaughters.
“Every bike brand wants Pidcock on their team but that would have been a decision for Cannondale to push for. At that point in time we didn’t realistically have the funds, and I’m sure Cannondale and EF would have loved it, but we didn’t have our hat in the ring. It was unrealistic to be honest.”
Come May and Vaughters began to look at the market more closely. He was aware that Carapaz had not re-signed with Ineos but he needed financial support in order to make a realistic bid for the South American. Vaughters had to sell the idea of signing Carapaz to his sponsors as much as he needed to persuade Carapaz into the move.
“I didn’t think that we could afford him at first,” Vaughters admits.
“But educational travel picked up in the middle of May and at that point, EF gave me the green light to at least try. It was a lot later than you think. Of course I talked to Acquadro all the time but I didn’t have the budget until May and that allowed for the conversation to become a little more serious.”
Just after the conclusion of the Giro d’Italia those discussions began to ramp up. First with Acquadro and then with Carapaz himself.
Measurements of success
Before that, it’s important to understand why EF and Vaughters were drawn to Carapaz in the first place. The obvious factor was the rider’s success and relative youth. He’s in his prime and with a team around him should that guarantee headlines throughout the year. But there’s more to it than that.
If EF just wanted a winner they could have gone for Paris-Roubaix victor Dylan van Baarle or a Romain Bardet, Mark Cavendish, or even a Tom Dumoulin, who was still on the market at that point.
What Vaughters and his backers were looking for, however, was a rider who could tick a number of boxes.
“I wouldn’t say that we were only focused on a GC guy. It’s just that we needed a new anchor point to the team and one that would fit with the environment that we had. Our environment gives rides a lot of freedom and autonomy but with that comes responsibility, and some riders are really good with that, while some struggle. You have to find someone who is a self-sufficient rider and bluntly speaking, because we’re a team that isn’t backed by an oil prince, and is backed by a company that looks at specific marketing metrics, we needed a rider that transcended more than bike racing,” says Vaughters.
“Richard is an Olympic gold medalist and that’s bigger than the endemic bike racing market. Winning Liege, it’s a great race, but it’s unknown outside the market. We needed someone with a broader appeal, because that’s the world in which EF functions. There aren’t many riders who tick all those boxes. You also need a rider for their recruitment who has or can perform in the Tour de France one way or another. We had to find a guy who was a proven performer in the Tour de France. He was the only rider on the market who would significantly move the dial for our team. To be blunt, there wasn’t a plan B.”
Fast forward to June and Acquadro set up a call between Vaughters and his rider. Carapaz was in Monaco – he lives in the same apartment complex as Uran – and the American team boss and the Ineos rider began to have their first interactions.
First topic up for discussion?
“First time we talked it was about milking cows and riding horses. That’s what we talked about. Look, he grew up on a ranch and my uncle and his family are ranchers. We talked about what he wanted to do with his career moving forward and he wanted to know how I viewed him as a rider and where I thought he would fit with the team and it just went from there. He felt it would be a good fit,” Vaughters says.
The ranch comment might feel frivolous or irrelevant but it was based on serious factors when it came to character and work ethic.
“He comes from a ranching family and he’s not the sort of rider you’ll find caught up in a party lifestyle. He trains everyday, likes to be home with his family and that’s his gig. I looked at that and saw a guy who would work hard to win races. That was important to me,” argues Vaughters.
With Uran also putting in a good word when it came to EF and the team, the deal quickly turned into a reality with a three-year contract agreed in principle before the end of June.
The signing of Carapaz marks a huge shift for EF Education-EasyPost. He is the only grand tour winner on the team’s roster, and its first since Ryder Hesjedal almost a decade ago.
EF now has their marquee signing with riders such as Carthy, Chaves, and possible Uran – if he stays – in play for the future. Carapaz will have the pick of grand tours for 2023, an aspect that he has never enjoyed so far in his career, and the team will be at his disposal throughout the majority of the races that he goes to.
“He knows that he can’t just say this year is the Tour and the next year is the Giro. He knows that we have to wait and see what the courses will be like but he knows that we’ll treat him as the number one but he’s also flexible. He understands the sponsors and the course changes. He wanted to be the number one in a team and he wanted to know that he would be supported, through and through. He also wanted Spanish-speaking riders, and a Spanish-speaking director,” says Vaughters.
“We’re a comfortable place for him. We’re a very melting-pot team, culturally. American, in the truest sense. But North and South American. Probably a comfortable place for a true Vaquero like Richard.”