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BURGOS, Spain (VN) — Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) patiently posed for photographs and signed autographs from a steady stream of fans before the start of the Vuelta a Burgos on Wednesday.
In his first race since Liège-Bastogne-Liège, many of the amateur riders who approached the Colombian star were clearly in much better condition than Betancur.
The explosive climber, who won Paris-Nice in March before returning to Colombia this spring, admits he’s not close to top form, but hopes the five-day Vuelta a Burgos will put him on the right track ahead of the Vuelta a España (August 23-September 14).
“I believe, that after racing Burgos and the Vuelta, I will be ready for the world championships. I think I will be OK by the final week of the Vuelta. I will try to win a stage or do something to show myself,” Betancur told VeloNews. “This is what I love to do. I like to race my bike. I’ve seen a lot of disparaging comments about me, including from my own team, but I’m back, and I’m ready to race.”
The 24-year-old returns to competition after missing a planned start of the Tour de France, something that drove a wedge between the promising Colombian and his French team.
Betancur insists he’s been sick with a viral infection since last fall, and told Ag2r La Mondiale management he was not healthy enough to race the Tour.
After abandoning the Catalunya and Basque Country tours, and pulling out of Liège-Bastogne-Lìege, Betancur returned to Colombia. Well known to prefer staying close to family, Betancur said he wanted to fully recover from his stubborn illness.
Ag2r was still holding out hope Betancur could race the Tour. He missed a flight back to Europe in June to race the Tour de Suisse, but according to team manager Vincent Lavenu, he did not inform the team until afterward. That delayed his visa application as well, putting his Tour start in jeopardy.
Lavenu openly complained about Betancur’s perceived indifferent attitude.
“It’s annoying,” Lavenu told CyclingWeekly in June. “There are always problems with him. Betancur is special. I don’t know if other Colombians are as complicated as mine.”
Those kinds of comments could well mean that Betancur is not Lavenu’s for long. Rumors are already flying that Betancur is headed to Omega Pharma-Quick Step next season, meaning that he will not complete the remaining year on his contract with Ag2r La Mondiale.
“Those comments bothered me,” Betancur told VeloNews and a reporter from Biciciclismo.com. “Everyone has the right to say what they want, but I am one of the few riders on this team who races and actually wins anything. What else can I say? I don’t know.”
When pressed if he is leaving the team, Betancur would only say, “I don’t know. We’ll see how the rest of the season goes.”
Betancur said he’s been racked by a viral infection since last year. Without specifying what it was — it’s been reported he had mononucleosis — Betancur said he was “sick,” and could only return to training four weeks ago.
He said he kept the team informed of his illness, but Lavenu’s public criticism doesn’t sit well with Betancur.
“I was sick. The team knew that I was diagnosed with a virus, yet they still didn’t support me. The plan was to race the Tour de France, but I couldn’t do it,” Betancur said. “I would have liked to have raced the Tour, but I wanted to go in condition to do it well. There was a little bit of misunderstanding, but in the end, I was right. One cannot go to the Tour when one is sick.”
On Wednesday, Betancur once again showed up to an elite race clearly far from top condition. In his season debut at the Tour de San Luis, Betancur was about 13 pounds overweight, yet he still managed to win the Tour de Haut Var barely a month later, and quickly followed up with victory at Paris-Nice.
Betancur didn’t reveal his weight, but was clearly packing extra kilos. In Wednesday’s first stage, he finished 81st, losing more than five minutes to the leaders.
Yet one pro said before the start of Wednesday’s stage, “Betancur might be overweight, but he’ll still drop us all on the climbs.”
Betancur insisted he’s on the mend, and promises to regain the spark that had many pegging him as a grand tour candidate following his breakout fifth-place in the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
“It’s been sad, and [I] couldn’t count on the support of my team. I’ve always demonstrated that I am rider who can win,” Betancur said. “It was very sad to miss all this time. It’s something that my team doesn’t seem to understand, that I love to race the bike. After winning Paris-Nice, I wanted to continue with success in Catalunya, Basque Country, the Ardennes, and then the Tour. Normally, I would have arrived at the Tour in top shape. That’s cycling. You just have to keep looking forward.”
Betancur said his struggles this season have not diminished his self-confidence.
“I won Paris-Nice without being at 100 percent. When I am in optimum condition, I know I can be up there with the top riders,” he concluded.
“I am barely starting to come back. I’ve only started training a month ago. This is my first race after four or five months, I am sure it’s going to be difficult, but this is what I love to do.”
Whether he’s “doing it” next season with Lavenu and Ag2r looks very unlikely at this point.