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How Movistar discovered Ecuadorian star Carapaz

Youngster Richard Carapaz became the first Ecuadorian to win a grand tour stage at the Giro, but that didn't surprise team brass.

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The Giro d’Italia might be in the rear-view mirror for much of the cycling world, but Richard Carapaz continues to be feted in his native Ecuador.

Carapaz flew home last week where he’s been the toast of the nation. He has appeared on national chat shows and been greeted by politicians and officials after his historic Giro performance in which he became the first Ecuadorian to win a stage in any grand tour.

Before this Giro started, few beyond the Latin American cycling world knew much about Carapaz. A victory in stage 8 and fourth overall in the Giro opened the eyes to what everyone inside the Movistar organization already knew.

“I wasn’t totally surprised by his Giro performance, but I was about his consistency,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “Young riders are always ambitious. Sometimes that ambition can get the better of them. He recovered every day and really never made a mistake. We can all be very satisfied.”

For the manager who brought Nairo Quintana to Europe, Unzué is right to be enthusiastic about Carapaz’s breakout Giro performance.

Carapaz is part of a new wave of Latin American riders coming in behind the likes of Quintana and Rigoberto Urán. Egan Bernal, a Colombian flying high with a breakout 2018 season, is also lighting the cycling world on fire.

What’s different is that Carapaz is Ecuadoran. His country rides in the shadow of its ebullient and more successful northern neighbor.

“He’s Ecuadoran, but he lives very near Colombia, and cycling-speaking, he grew up as if he were Colombian,” Unzué said. “He’s from 2,800m [about 9,200 feet]. He’s very similar to the Colombians we’ve seen coming over.”

Carapaz won the first grand tour stage win of his career and became the first Ecuadorian riders to net a grand tour stage win. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

For Unzué, who helped Quintana make the leap to the European scene, it’s the latest discovery by a team rich with Latin American talent.

There are many similarities between Carapaz and Quintana. Both are compact, scrappy climbers, with ambition and a motor to match. Like Quintana, who grew up in the mountains of Colombian in modest conditions, Carapaz was able to reach the top of the cycling pyramid on his pure cycling talent.

Carapaz lives in a village of about 100 families called La Playa, high in the mountains of northern Ecuador. His parents watched their son race and win a stage in Italy from their small home high in the Ecuadoran mountains just south of the Colombian border.

Carapaz raced on local teams in the nascent Ecuadoran racing scene. Carapaz’s natural talent captured the attention of Latin American talent scouts plying the junior ranks hungry to find the next Quintana or Bernal. 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 (an amateur version of the Tour of Colombia).

Unzué said it was Spanish pro Oscar Sevilla who tipped him off about a climbing sensation from Ecuador.

“I brought him over to Europe in 2016, with the Lizarte team, which is a feeder team to develop young talent,” Unzué said. “He quickly adapted to racing in Europe, and he’s been consolidating himself with results that revealed his potential.”

Richard Carapaz
Richard Carapaz was a consistent performer at the 2018 Giro d’Italia. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

There were plenty of hints coming into 2018 that Carapaz has the capacity to perform. He nearly won the Route du Sud last summer in France and then showed promise in his grand tour debut in the 2017 Vuelta a España, finishing 36th overall that included strong rides in the final week.

Carapaz continued his progression this spring, helping Marc Soler win Paris-Nice in March before finishing third at Coppi e Bartali and winning the Vuelta a Asturias en route to the Giro.

Movistar came to the Giro without a designated captain, but with the intention of winning a stage. With Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, and Mikel Landa all targeting the Tour, Carapaz stepped into the Giro void and delivered beyond the team’s expectations.

Unzué can only look back with pride, with Carapaz winning a stage and finishing just off the final podium with fourth.

“We keep discovering things about him,” Unzué said. “Last year in the Vuelta, he was strong in the third week. That shows he has the motor.”

Carapaz doesn’t know what he’ll do to finish off the rest of the season. Unzué said a Tour de France start is not in the cards, at least not this year. Right now, Carapaz is riding the wave in the wake of his Giro success.

“It was a big dream to even race a three-week tour when I came to this team, and now I have finished in the top-five of the Giro, well, it’s just amazing,” Carapaz said. “I always dreamed I could do it, but now that I have pulled it off, I believe in myself even more. Now I dream for even more.”

Could he be the next Quintana? The always prudent Unzué doesn’t want to put undue pressure on his newly shining gem.

“We’ll see how he develops,” Unzué said. “We already know how spectacular he can perform. It’s encouraging signs for the future.”