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‘Thankful’ Betancur rides clear to claim Paris-Nice lead

Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) thanked God after Friday's wild, frenetic finale that slotted him into the race lead at Paris-Nice.

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FAYENCE, France (VN) — Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) thanked God more than usual in post-race press conferences after Friday’s wild, frenetic finale that slotted him into the pole position to win Paris-Nice.

With just 300 meters remaining on short, but very steep 1.5km climb at the end of the 221.5km sixth stage, it appeared Betancur wasn’t going to win.

First Tom-Jelte Slagter (Garmin-Sharp) attacked, quickly followed by  world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), but both of those efforts fizzled just as soon as they started, and Betancur surged past Costa with remarkable ease to win the stage, and pull on the yellow jersey, most likely for good with two days remaining at the Race to the Sun.

“Thank God, everything turned out in the end,” said Betancur, who also effusively thanked his sponsor and his teammates for his good fortune. “This is the biggest win of my career. Thank God.”

Betancur can also thank his lucky stars.

Garmin’s Slagter looked poised to win, pouncing out of the final switchback with just under 300m to go. He avoided the crashing Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r-La Mondiale), but that wasn’t the problem. Slagter’s rear derailleur was munched when another rider rode into him in the run-in to the base of the climb at 2km to go. When Slagter stood up to attack, his derailleur broke, and he was forced to walk across the line in disappointment, 1:34 back, losing any hope of winning.

Then it was Costa’s turn, who left an exasperated Slagter in the rearview mirror, but it wasn’t the weight of the rainbow jersey bearing down on him; it was the counterattack from Betancur.

“Chapeau to Betancur, he had very good legs to beat me,” said Costa, still looking for his first win after four second-place finishes this season. “Today went perfect, but of course I would have liked to have won.”

Betancur rode with steely calm, patiently picking his way through the group, and then pouncing after the final switchback to surge past Costa.

The Colombian also gapped overnight leader Geraint Thomas (Sky), who crossed the line fourth at three seconds back. Add up the time bonuses (a pair of 10-second bonuses for back-to-back wins for Betancur), and the Colombian is now eight seconds ahead of Thomas.

“Thank God that the team was there to support me today,” Betancur said. “With the help of God, and my team, I hope to win this Paris-Nice.”

Betancur can also thank his powerful engine, which is producing some impressive, early season fireworks that should put his rivals on notice.

Betancur came into the 2014 season overweight (team officials said Betancur suffered a death in the family over the winter, knocking him off his training schedule). In fact, he was visibly out of shape at the Tour de San Luís in February. He’s quickly shed the extra baggage, and promises to be even leaner in time for the spring classics. His strong performance this week at Paris-Nice also raises expectations for his highly anticipated Tour de France debut later this season.

Betancur confirmed he will skip the Giro d’Italia, where he rode to fifth overall last year and won the best climber’s jersey, and will bet everything on being ready for the Tour.

“After the Ardennes, I will prepare for the Tour. It’s my first time in the race, and I know how difficult it will be, but I go with hopes of doing as well as possible,” he said.

Could he be this year’s Nairo Quintana? His compatriot was the sensation of last year’s Tour, winning a stage, the climber’s and white jerseys, as well as finishing second overall. When asked about how well he gets along with Quintana, who will be skipping the Tour to race the Giro, Betancur paused.

“Nairo is very good in the climbs and can time trial well,” he said. “I think I have my own qualities.”

Those qualities include producing impressive finishing speed both on the flats and at the end of short, intense efforts. The climb up Fayence was very much like the Mur de Huy, the decisive climb where Betancur attacked early to finish third at Flèche Wallonne last spring. He’s hoping to repeat that success in the Ardennes.

“I hope to do even better in the spring classics than last year. I’d like to win one of them, but I know it’s very competitive,” he said. “First, I want to win Paris-Nice. This is very important to my sponsor. With the help of God and my team, I hope to win Sunday.”

Things are stacking up in Betancur’s favor. Despite two climb-heavy stages in the mountains around France’s Cote d’Azur, he should be able to handle the pressure.

With race organizers eliminating the closing-day climbing time trial up Col d’Eze that decided the race the past two editions, and a race that would have favored Thomas, Betancur can now ride defensively to defend the jersey, follow the moves, and then using his kick to pick up finish-line time bonuses.