NICE, France (VN) — Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) survived a harrowing final stage Sunday to become the first Colombian to win Paris-Nice in what is a watershed moment for the precocious South American.
Although this year’s Paris-Nice, sans time trials or major mountaintop finales, was ideal for his puncheur style, and more than a few would-be rivals suffered some bad luck, Betancur was strong when he needed to be to secure the most important victory of his young, promising career.
Just where does Betancur go next? Can he be this year’s Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and blast through his Tour de France debut in similar fashion?
What’s clear is that the 24-year-old Betancur is his own man.
“I do not fear anyone. I am a respectful person, and I have a lot of respect for my rivals, but I do not fear anyone,” Betancur said. “I am ambitious. I love racing my bike, and I want to win big races.”
Betancur hails from the small town of Ciudad Bolivar in rural Colombia. He said his family worked as coffee growers, and he grew up hoping to race his bike, but couldn’t afford it. He finally managed to link up with a local club and quickly won his first race, which helped him tap into Colombia’s flourishing cycling community.
More results in local and regional racing linked him up with the Colombian national team, where he was second at the under-23 world championships in 2009. He won the Giro-Bio in 2010.
“I grew up dreaming of being a pro, but I could have never imagined winning a race like Paris-Nice or starting the Tour,” he said. “When I started this week, I never thought I would win. By far, this is the most important victory of my career.”
Betancur shot onto the radar screen last season with an impressive Ardennes campaign and an equally successful Giro d’Italia debut, riding to fifth overall and winning the white jersey.
He came into this season visibly overweight, but team boss Vincent Lavenu, who compared him to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), said Betancur is a rider who continues to broaden his skillset.
“He’s still a few kilos too heavy, and he needs to lose that before the Ardennes to have a real chance of victory,” Lavenu said. “For the Tour, we will not put pressure on him, but we hope he can win a stage, or even finish in the top 5.”
Betancur hedges when asked if he thinks he can win a grand tour some day, and admitted he prefers racing one-day races instead, citing the Ardennes and the world championships as his favorites.
Lavenu said it remains to be seen how Betancur handles the heat of France’s summer, and against longer time trials.
Betancur trains with Michele Bartoli, the former Italian pro who is now quietly training a handful of professional riders, including some from Lampre-Merida.
“Michele is like a second father to me. I live less than one kilometer from him, and I see him almost every day,” Betancur said. “He’s been very important to my progress in Europe.”
Unlike many of his Colombian compatriots, most of whom live and train near Pamplona, Spain, Betancur has settled near Lucca, Italy, to be closer to Bartoli.
When asked how he compares to Colombia’s other breakout star Quintana, Betancur’s reply was telling. He obviously doesn’t like riding in the shadow of anyone.
“Nairo is very good in the climbs and can time trial well,” he said. “I think I have my own qualities.”
But he quickly adds that it’s a dream of the current generation of Colombians to race on the same professional team some day, saying he chose Ag2r over other teams “because they gave me the best opportunity to grow and demonstrate my qualities.”
Betancur has emerged as an old-school puncheur, a rider who has explosive power up short, steep climbs, and will certainly enter the spring classics as a favorite at such races as Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
His victories at the Tour du Haut Var and Paris-Nice prove that Betancur can win, even when he’s not in top form. If he manages to control his weight, Betancur could prove hard to beat come April.
And what about July? The entire world will be watching.
“I am looking forward to racing the Tour, because the longer, sustained climbs of France are more similar to what we train on in Colombia,” he said. “Finishing fifth in the Giro last year was big, but to win at Paris-Nice is even more important. It’s the second most important race in France.”