Carlos Betancur claimed a surprise victory on the opening stage of the Tour du Haut-Var on Saturday when he out-paced John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and his Ag2r-La Mondiale teammate Samuel Dumoulin in the bunch finish at La Croix-Valmer.
It was Betancur's first win since signing for Ag2r at the start of last season. The Colombian climber came close at Flèche Wallonne last spring and on three separate occasions at the 2013 Giro d’Italia [where he finished 5th place overall] and it was notable that he eventually broke his duck on what was ostensibly a day for the sprinters.
"We were anticipating a very fast finish but it turned out to be more difficult than expected and I felt at ease on that terrain," Betancur said, according to his team website.
Betancur began his 2014 season with a decidedly low-key showing at the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, where he freely admitted that he was still some way over his optimum racing weight. Since returning to his European base in Italy, however, Betancur said that he has been training consistently.
"I'm not surprised by my good sensations because the form came back very quickly after I started my season at the Tour de San Luis," he said. "I'm coming from a good training camp with the team and I've felt very good for a few days.
"I often finished in second place in 2013, and I really wanted to bring a win to the team very quickly this season, so this victory is for the whole group."
Ag2r-La Mondiale directeur sportif Julien Jurdie explained that the team's original plan was for Betancur to lead out Dumoulin in the sprint, but the Colombian proved so strong that he was able to continue his effort all the way to the line.
"It was a finale for strong men and not for pure sprinters," Jurdie told L’Équipe. "Betancur was leading out the sprint for Samuel and he ended up winning. He was very strong."
For Jurdie, the surprise was not so much that Betancur beat Degenkolb in the sprint but that he won in spite of carrying some additional weight. "He still has 6kg to lose, but at the Tour of the Mediterranean, I realised that his sensations were good. He’s on the right track," Jurdie said.
That weight might yet prove a more significant handicap on the second, hillier stage of the Tour du Haut-Var, and Jurdie was circumspect about Betancur's prospects of holding on to the overall lead in Draguignan on Sunday.
"If he was 100 percent, I would optimistic," Jurdie said. "If gets over the top of the Tuilières in front, then it's possible. But above all, I think with Bouet, Chérel and Dumoulin, we have the collective ability to do something good on this race."