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True Climber

Hugh Carthy was a revelation in the 2019 Giro d’Italia, but what we saw Carthy has spent half of his young life planning.

Words and photos: Chris Sidwells

I first met Hugh Carthy in 2007 when he 12 years old. It was quite by chance, and of all place on Mont Ventoux. I was there taking photographs for a book I wrote called Tour Climbs, and I was just getting back on the old mountain bike I used for such jobs when a kid pedalled sweetly by. He looked like a miniature pro; nice little De Rosa bike, all to scale, SiS team kit, and a look of total concentration on his face. It was extraordinary.

He was followed by his dad, Sean, driving the family car, and we met further up the climb. They were British, from Preston, and this was something they did together. Sean was a keen cyclist who, as many keen cyclists do, introduced his son to the sport. It took hold. Hugh was captured by it and inspired by one aspect; he loved climbing hills, and he really loved climbing mountains on his bike.

Hugh Carthy 2007

I have to admit, at first I wondered if Sean wasn’t the driving force and his son went along for approval, but you don’t climb mountains like Hugh was climbing the Ventoux to please somebody else. “It comes from Hugh, he wants to do it,” Sean told me. “Our family holidays are always in France now because Hugh wants to do the famous climb, and he gets me to record his times.”

As I watched Hugh climb further and further up the mountain I slowly realised I was watching something special. This was someone with a gift. And if I needed more proof Hugh’s time at the top revealed it, just over 1 hour and 20 minutes. That’s fast, his dad wasn’t pushing him; something inside Hugh Carthy was.

 Hugh Carthy 2007

Fast forward to 2012 and his gift had brought results, Carthy was on the verge of a professional career with the rarest of talents; he was a true climber. He’d grown, but at six feet three inches he still weighed only 67 kilos, and if a race had a significant climb in it then Hugh Carthy won it.

I’d noted his progress, so I phoned him up and arranged to meet him at the family home in Preston. I wanted him to show me his favourite training ride for one of the ‘Ride With’ features I did for Cycling Weekly back then, but I also wanted to know more about him. Now, with Hugh having done so well in the 2019 Giro d’Italia I dug out the notes I made that day, and this is the interview I did with him, in full and for the first time.

Early years
“I started racing when I was eight, and when you saw me on Mont Ventoux I’d done some races at Preston Arena and won my age group in a few hill climbs, but after that I didn’t do many youth’s circuit races, certainly not the national series. I just did some time trials, and I kept riding and I kept enjoying it,” he said to kick off the interview.

It was good career planning, mature too, the British youth’s circuit series suits a certain type of rider, and Carthy was never that type. I remember Josh Edmondson, another hot young prospect back then, saying that his single ambition in the national youth series was not to get lapped by Dan McLay. Edmondson proved his worth later and rode for Team Sky, although his career totally misfired, but that’s another story for another day.

Hugh Carthy 2012                                                                                     
                                                                                      Carthy in 2012

Right from the start Carthy knew he had a talent, he knew he was a pure climber and the youth circuit series suited sprinters like Dan McLay. So Carthy kept his powder dry, won some hill climbs, did some time trials, tested himself on the big mountain climbs during his holidays and he rode his bike. He rode his bike a lot, content that his junior years were coming, and with them the chance to race on the open road where there are hills.

Breaking through
“I wasn’t too bad in my first junior year, I was learning about racing really, but I got second on a stage of the junior Tour of Ireland and I wore the mountains jersey for a couple of days. That helped my confidence, and in the junior Tour of Wales I finished fifth overall. I was first of the first-year juniors too,” he said in 2012.

A good first year was followed by a great second one. Carthy broke his collarbone half way through the season and missed the Isle of Man Tour, but he came back to take a hilly stage in the Tour of Ireland and the climber’s jersey. Then he won the junior Tour of Wales, which is the top date in UK junior road racing, and he won it well, leading for the final four stages and winning the King of the Mountains along the way.

John Herety spoke to Carthy earlier that year and told him he was watching his results. Herety’s Rapha-Condor team would focus on development in 2013. Carthy followed up his Welsh victory with a mountain stage win in an American race, and a contract with Rapha-Condor was his.

Hugh Carthy 2012

He was young to turn pro, but so many of his Rapha-Condor team mates were young too, and as he pointed out in our interview: “I know I’ll get a good race programme, one designed to develop our racing skills as well as our strength and fitness.” He couldn’t have had a better mentor than Herety, who has helped a lot of British talent.

Carthy also started working with a coach, Ken Matheson in 2012. That was a good choice too; Matheson knows cycling and has great empathy and intuition. With Matheson, Carthy began “Filling the gaps, like building strength and working on my sprint. Up until now training has just been going out and riding in the hills,” Hugh said.

Carthy has the physique to climb, the simple power to weight ratio to succeed, but he also has the supple pedalling technique and rhythm of true a climber. I saw it on Mont Ventoux in 2007, and I saw it out on the road in 2012 as Carthy flew up Longridge Fell, one of three big climbs on his favourite ride in and around the Trough of Bowland. Everybody can see it now, Carthy has the souplesse of a gifted climber and a climber’s feel for when to sit and when to get out of the saddle.

He wasn’t so fluid on the next climb he did that day in 2012. He was grinding up Waddington Fell with an exaggerated, elbows-out, lunging style. And no wonder, he explained at the top. “It’s Ken’s idea; I used 52 x 16 all the way up. It’s like bike-specific weight training to build leg and core strength, and strength overall really. I’m trying to do 20 minutes like that on every three-hour ride I do at the moment,” he said.

Hugh Carthy 2012

Against the grain
It goes against the grain to grind up a climb when you can dance up one, but this sort of training was necessary for Carthy. He needed to increase the grunt he put into the pedals to survive fast, flat stages without burning too much energy. That’s how climbers arrive at the mountains in good shape.

“I do love climbing though, it motivates me when I feel strong and I can sense that others are struggling a bit, when you see out of the corner of your eye they are dropping back. That’s when you go harder and up the rhythm, and I like the long wearing down sort of climbs,” Carthy told me.

I asked him what his dream was back in 2012. “It probably won’t happen, but wining a mountain stage of the Tour de France” he said.

That dream could become a reality now. At 24 Carthy is still young, still developing, but he’s shaping into a real contender. Will we see polka-dots in Preston one day? I hope so, Hugh Carthy, who planned his career at 12 in the mountains of the Tour de France, really deserves to win there.

Hugh Carthy


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