CHIAVARI, Italy (VN) — There was a sense of relief, and of new possibilities, around the Ag2r La Mondiale bus Tuesday morning at the start of stage 4 of the Giro d’Italia.
Riders and officials were both thankful that Domenico Pozzovivo, their diminutive GC captain who suffered a horrific crash Monday, was miraculously out of the hospital, with nary a broken bone despite a fall that sent chills around the world. Banged up and bruised, a defiant Pozzovivo was already plotting his comeback, with a possible return at the Tour de Suisse in June.
Under a brilliant spring morning on Italy’s sparkling Ligurian coast, the remaining Ag2r La Mondiale riders stepped out of the team bus Tuesday morning, intent to make the most out of the Giro — just 24 hours before they were targeting the podium with an on-form Pozzovivo.
With the Italian out of the race, the spotlight turns to Carlos Betancur, the troubled yet brilliant Colombian climber who now takes over the reins of the team’s GC hopes.
“Things are going pretty well. The team is very strong, and we’re hoping to keep things going in this Giro, after the lamentable exit of our captain, Pozzovivo,” Betancur told VeloNews at the start Tuesday. “I saw the crash. It was a pretty easy curve, but we don’t know what happened. Thanks to God, he escaped without serious injuries. That just shows again, despite a year of working to prepare for a race like the Giro, you can lose it all in an instant. That’s also part of cycling.”
The 25-year-old Betancur has arrived to this Giro looking the thinnest he’s looked in more than a year. After winning Paris-Nice last year, many were expecting a breakout season from the Colombian. Instead of making his Tour de France debut as planned last summer, Betancur all but disappeared, returning to his home in rural Colombia. Following a near-fallout with his French employers, Betancur returned to Europe last summer, visibly out of shape at the start line of the Vuelta a Burgos last August. He made it through the Vuelta a España without having much of an impact, riding to 158th overall. That’s a trend that’s continued this season, packed with unremarkable results, barely punching into the top-100 at the Vuelta al País Vasco in April.
Those results are in sharp contrast to Betancur’s two previous seasons, including his breakout fifth overall at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, as well as a third at Flèche Wallonne and fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège that same year.
Betancur went off the rails last year, gaining weight, having a fallout with his team, and suffering through undefined “personal problems” that stymied his progress.
Sounding chipper and looking trim at the start Tuesday, Betancur said he’s hoping this Giro offers a chance to remind everyone he can be a factor at the elite of the peloton.
“Now my team will be looking to me, and I will to do things as well as possible. We have a good team for the Giro,” Betancur continued. “I am feeling pretty good. I had good preparation for the Giro. I was really struggling to stay with the lead group [Monday], but overall, I am feeling OK. This Giro sees some of the best riders in the world, but let’s see if we can gain some important results.”
Ag2r La Mondiale is perhaps being more realistic. Instead of riding for the podium with Pozzovivo, the team has already refitted its goals to hunt for stage victories.
“The story changes for us now. With Pozzovivo gone, Betancur is now our leader for the GC,” said Ag2r La Mondiale sport director Laurent Biondi. “Maybe it’s better to try to win a stage. We will see how he goes. Carlos has arrived here in good shape.”
Ag2r La Mondiale didn’t miss a beat Tuesday, slotting Matteo Montaguti into the day’s main breakaway in the lumpy fourth stage along Italy’s Cinque Terre coast to La Spezia.
Pozzovivo’s exit also reveals how often unexpected opportunities can be presented to lieutenants in grand tour racing. Cycling is full of stories of second-option GC captains stepping up to fill the void. In the 2013 Tour de France, Movistar was riding for Alejandro Valverde, but when he crashed out, Nairo Quintana used the opening to become the sensation of the peloton, winning a stage, the King of the Mountains jersey, and riding a Colombia-best second overall.
Several teams in this Giro also have a ‘plan B’ rider on their rosters, just in case their respective GC captains hit a rough spot. Tinkoff-Saxo has Roman Kreuziger behind Alberto Contador, just as Leopold Konig is poised for Sky if Richie Porte struggles.
Could this Giro represent Betancur’s big change to redeem himself? That story will play out over the next few weeks, but he was sounding optimistically cautious Tuesday morning.
“I hope I can be with the best in this Giro,” Betancur said. “With the sensations that I have, I can be up front in the last week.”