Class over kilos: The promising return of Carlos Betancur
Carlos Betancur has been the butt of many jokes in recent years. After an impressive start to his pro career, the enigmatic Colombian has struggled with his weight and last year lost his contract with Ag2r-La Mondiale after proving unreliable on and off the bike. But in 2016, the Colombian seems to be back on track.
Now riding for the Spanish Movistar squad, Carlos Betancur has had a resurgence of form. He won a stage of the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in April, rode aggressively at Liege-Bastogne-Liege later that month, and then, just days ago, won a stage of the Vuelta Asturias. With Betancur set to line up at the Giro d’Italia later this week, Fran Reyes caught up with the 26-year-old to learn more about his intriguing story.
A fancy auditorium, lots of low LED lights and projectors pointed towards translucent screens where impressive graphics are cast. It’s the Movistar 2016 team presentation, held in the headquarters of Telefónica, the telecommunications company that operates the Movistar brand worldwide. Only two riders on the team’s roster are missing. One is Adriano Malori, who had suffered a heavy crash a week earlier during the Vuelta a San Luis. The other is Carlos Betancur.
Why Betancur wasn’t there was the main question whispered that day among audience members. “Visa problems”, was the answer employed by the team’s press officer. In one corner of the vast hall where the meet and greet was happening, a rider takes a smartphone out of his pocket and shows a photo to those around him. “I took it in November”, he says with a hint of a smile and a mischievous laugh.
In the first of Movistar’s winter training camps, Carlos Betancur didn’t look like a cyclist. “He was, how to say it, chubby”, said one member of staff. “[Team manager Eusebio Unzue] likes to place this kind of bets,” the staff member said, referring to how Unzue sometimes employs riders other teams have overlooked. “But we think he was wrong this time”.
Yet Unzue was right. Three months later, Betancur was attacking on the hills of Liège-Bastogne-Liège having already won a race the week before.
— Movistar Team (@Movistar_Team) April 24, 2016
So how did Carlos Betancur go from being significantly overweight and out of favour, to being selected for the Giro d’Italia in such a short space of time?
The missing planes
The story of Carlos Betancur’s early days takes us to the countryside of Antioquia, a mountainous region of Colombia. He lived there on the family farm, spending much of his time riding horses.
“I used to [ride] with my dad to go to the city and sell the vegetables we grew”, he recalls. “I love animals in general and horses in particular. Indeed, until last year I kept three in Colombia, but I had to get rid of them this winter”.
Fast forward to 2013 and we find a young rising star that has just joined Ag2r-La Mondiale, one of the French WorldTour squads, from Acqua e Sapone, an Italian second-division outfit. His results sheet is impressive: victories in the under-23 versions of both the Vuelta a Colombia and Giro d’Italia before turning 21, and then four victories in his rookie and sophomore seasons.
Betancur went on to confirm his potential in his first year with Ag2r, finishing second on no fewer than four summit finishes at the Giro d’Italia, en route to winning the best young rider classification. Right after the ‘corsa rosa’ he travelled back to Colombia for training. When he came back to Europe in August to take part in the Vuelta a España, he was way out of shape. His best individual result at that race? 54th.
“And we lived the same story time and again for three straight years”, Ag2r-La Mondiale director sportif Julien Jurdie complained in L’Équipe last summer. “We took him to the Vuelta because his name was Carlos Betancur, but his condition after spending some time in Colombia was poor at best”.
It was the beginning of a spat that lasted three years. And it could have been four, since his contract, signed in a moment of euphoria following one of his stunning early performances, ran through 2016.
The kid had talent. He had proved himself as a sparkling climber in the Giro and as a powerful uphill finisher by putting two stages and the GC of the 2014 Paris-Nice under his (tight) belt, all while being 5kg above his ideal weight.
Yet his class was forgotten in bouts of apparent laziness, a trend towards sudden weight-gain, and a particular personality that saw him disappear for a month before the 2014 Tour de France, missing several flights and even disconnecting his phone for weeks.
So what went wrong? When asking his teammates and others in the peloton, the first reaction is often a laugh.
“It takes guts to be like him”, one summarised. “He is hors de logique — beyond any logic — and we don’t quite understand him”, then-teammate Jean-Christophe Péraud said in an interview from last year.
“In Ag2r there were a lot of things that didn’t allow everything to flow smoothly,” Betancur himself told Cyclingnews this winter. “It’s like when you don’t get on well with your wife. You have to break up.”
Luckily for both Betancur and Ag2r-La Mondiale, Eusebio Unzue would soon come to the rescue.
Valverde fan and prospect
It’s the Sunday of Amstel Gold Race. Two days earlier, Betancur scored his first victory as a Movistar rider in the Vuelta a Castilla y León, a rather modest stage race in Spain where he outpowered and outsmarted Caja Rural’s Pello Bilbao. There he shared his second race day with Alejandro Valverde, who tried to help his Colombian teammate to earn the overall triumph as well. Betancur, however, was unable to hold the favourites’ pace on the final summit finish and Valverde had to get the victory for himself.
Notwithstanding the outcome of his performance, the Colombian was happy.
“It has been a pleasure to race alongside Valverde”, he stated. “I’ve always considered that the best cyclist of the world is not that who wins the Tour de France, but the one on top of the world ranking. And he’s been there for a handful of years.
“Because of that, I admire him. Eusebio Unzue thinks my conditions are very similar to his, and that’s a real honour for me”.
Carlos Betancur se mantiene de líder de la Vuelta a Castilla y León pic.twitter.com/m5NAOej7O7
— TuBici .com (@TuBiciWeb) April 17, 2016
Some sources consider Betancur’s admiration of Valverde the key to his transformation. Staff at Movistar are amazed by how fast he has progressed, especially since March, when he moved with his family to a flat close to the team’s service course in Gorraiz, a village near Pamplona, Spain.
“He has trained properly while working with the physicians of the team in order to lose weight”, his current coach Jorge Sanz explains. “Now I only have seven kilos of excess,” Betancur himself says. “So I’m where a professional cyclist has to be.”
The enthusiasm at Movistar about Betancur’s resurgence is obvious. Two weeks ago, Betancur’s race schedule included a break after the Tour de Romandie, the idea being to deliver a strong performance at the Vuelta a España. The squad didn’t include him in the pre-selection for the Giro d’Italia that was released to the public on the eve of the Ardennes classics – yet they wrote him down as a reserve in the official inscription.
Finally, after his impressive performance at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, they decided to take Betancur to the Giro where, in theory, he will help his hero Alejandro Valverde work towards the final podium of Torino.
For now, Betancur’s class seems to have outweighed his kilos.
About the author
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modelling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF