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Hoping for Tour start, Betancur picks up where he left off last year

Carlos Betancur kicks to an impressive victory in a hilly stage at Paris-Nice and wants a shot at the Tour de France in July

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RIVE-DE-GIER, France (VN) — Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) is picking up where he left off last season, kicking to victory Thursday at Paris-Nice on a day when logic said a late-stage breakaway would be doomed to fail.

Betancur outkicked Bob Jungels (Trek Factory Racing) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) to lead across the tape, two seconds ahead of the chasing pack.

It was an audacious attack from a rider who isn’t afraid to take gambles. And more often than not, they’re paying off for the clever Colombian.

“We knew today was a dangerous stage, that anything could happen. I was at the front all day, and when [Vincenzo] Nibali attacked, I got straight on his wheel,” Betancur said. “I knew the descent was tricky, and I wanted to be ready if anything happened.”

And happened it did. Astana sent Fuglsang on the counter-attack with Jungels and Betancur, and the three drove it hard to the line, holding off the desperately chasing front group packed with sprinters who suffered over the final climb for a shot at victory.

Betancur packs a mean punch, and outfoxed Jungels and out-muscled Fuglsang to win for the third time in 2014.

“I am still a little overweight, so that helps me have more power in the sprints,” Betancur said. “I knew Jungels would be a challenging opponent, but I am pretty good in these types of finishes.”

The 24-year-old Colombian enjoyed a breakout 2013, riding with panache across the Ardennes classics before climbing to fifth overall and the mountains jersey at the Giro d’Italia.

For 2014, Betancur is hoping to hit the repeat button. So far, with a victory Thursday to go with his win at the Tour du Haut Var last month in France, Betancur appears to be on track. Up next are the spring classics, followed by a likely start in the Tour de France.

“I am preparing well for the classics. I did pretty well in my first year in the Ardennes,” Betancur said. “This year, I want to go even better. I’d love to win one of the three.”

Betancur was third at Flèche Wallonne after a long attack on the Mur de Huy and fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, results that put everyone on notice that there was another Colombian on the rise in the elite peloton.

After the hilly classics, he hopes to make his Tour debut, with a run at the white jersey won in 2013 by countryman Nairo Quintana, and perhaps a spot in the top 10. He admitted it would be harder this year, because he knows he will have a target on his back.

“People will be watching me more than before,” he said. “What’s most important is the fitness. If you have legs, that’s all that matters.”

Up first are three decisive closing stages at Paris-Nice, a race that’s incredibly important for French sponsor Ag2r La Mondiale.

“Tomorrow is a key stage. It might not say who is going to win this Paris-Nice, but it will be very important. My team is supporting me, and tomorrow, we must be at the front,” he said. “There are many dangerous opponents for the GC. Nothing is decided, but we are still fighting to win the overall all the way to the end.”

Betancur is a scrappy rider, and that tenacity keeps paying dividends.