HUY, Belgium (VN) — Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) has been waiting to make a splash in the peloton and he nearly rode away with Flèche Wallonne after a gutsy, long-distance attack on Wednesday.
The 23-year-old Colombian surged out of the pack near the flame rouge top open the longest kilometer of the season at the end of a fast Flèche race. Betancur had a huge gap through the switchbacks partway up the Mur de Huy and started to believe in his chances, only to get reeled in with less than 100 meters to go.
The native of Medellín hung on for the third podium step as reward for his daring effort that nearly toppled the favorites.
“I tried from a long distance. I had the legs and I felt good,” Betancur told VeloNews at the finish line. “I am happy that I was able to finish on the podium. I was going for the win, of course, I thought I had chances. They caught me right there at the finish line. I did the best I could, just 50 meters from the line … ”
The ride comes on the heels of a second-place ride in stage 3 of the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) earlier this month. Just like today, Betancur attacked early there and nearly hung on. And just like that day above Bilbao, it was compatriot Sergio Henao (Sky) who caught him.
Henao won that Basque Country stage in a photo finish, and it was Henao who surged past Betancur on Wednesday to claim second behind winner Daniel Moreno (Katusha).
Betancur took consolation in hanging on for third, finishing just inches ahead of Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp).
“When I’ve won before, I’ve attacked from far away, and that’s a good style of riding for me. I decided to go to try to surprise them,” said Betancur. “The legs were good. I didn’t win, but I made a big effort there. Third is important in a race like this for me and my team.”
Betancur certainly made it hard on the pack. Not only did the leaders have to fight each other, but they also couldn’t let the Colombian get too far away. There was a moment when the favorites, led by 2011 winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), seemed to hesitate, looking to see who would take up the chase, and Betancur nearly made it to the line.
“We saw he was strong at the Basque tour, and he took his chance from far away,” said Moreno. “He made it complicated for us. Only two of us got past him, but the Mur is so steep it’s hard to keep a high rhythm the entire way up the climb.”
A well-built climber with a strong sprint, Betancur is a bit bulkier than the stereotypically thin Colombian mountain goat.
“I am still developing as a rider,” Betancur told VeloNews at the sign-in in Binche, Belgium, on Wednesday morning. “I hope some day to win a big race. We will see if I can develop into a grand tour rider. Right now, I would be happy to win some stages in important races.”
Colombians rising in wake of EPO era
Betancur is part of a new wave of Colombian riders establishing itself in the peloton.
In addition to Betancur and Henao, Basque Country winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Olympic silver medalist Rigoberto Urán (Sky) are making names for themselves in the sport’s biggest races. The UCI Pro Continental Colombia team is also nurturing South American talent.
On Wednesday, Betancur echoed a growing sentiment for why Colombian riders are suddenly doing well again in the peloton. One rationale for the recent Colombian boom is that the abuse of the blood-booster EPO has been greatly reduced in the peloton.
With less EPO, the natural benefits of living 10,000 feet above sea level are once again becoming an advantage.
“With so many anti-doping controls and the biological passport, it’s helping us because we live and train at altitude,” he said. “So when we come down, it’s a bit of an advantage for us.”
That’s not to say Colombians were not on the fast gas back in the EPO era, but it means that as the average hematocrit level drops, the higher hematocrit that typically comes with living and training at high altitude gives them the same edge as the first wave of Colombians in the 1980s, years before EPO became rampant in the peloton.
Betancur said he’s not losing sleep over what happened in the past and is focused on making a name for himself now.
A winner of the Girobio (Baby Giro) in 2010, Betancur turned pro in 2011 with Acqua e Sapone and rode well, notching a string of top-10 results, including a win at the Giro dell’Emilia and ninth in the season’s final monument, the Giro di Lombardia.
Last year, he was fourth at both the 4 Jours Dunkerque (Four Days of Dunkirk) and the Giro del Trentino. He also won stages at the Tour of Belgium and the Giro di Pardinia. From the Ardennes, he will head to the Giro d’Italia in May.
“Now we are preparing to make a good Giro,” he said. “I will ride in support of (Domenico) Pozzovivo for the GC. I will have my chances. Maybe I can win a stage. I love the Giro.”