Last summer, it seemed like everyone had a Carlos Betancur story. Everyone that is, but Carlos Betancur. After failing to report back to Europe on time from a stint at home in Colombia last June, he was hastily scratched from Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Tour de France team. For three months, only rumours crossed the Atlantic.
Difficulties in obtaining a visa, a bout of cytomegalovirus and the imminent birth of Betancur’s first child were all offered as explanations for his lengthy absence without official leave. Ag2r were apparently not alone in being unable to reach Betancur; at one point in June it even seemed that agent Giuseppe Acquadro and coach Michele Bartoli could not locate their man either.
By August, Acquadro had declared that he had negotiated Betancur’s release from his Ag2r contract at season’s end, although team manager Vincent Lavenu offered a swift rebuttal to that claim and the Colombian eventually lined up at the Vuelta a Burgos and the Vuelta a España, albeit a mere shadow of the rider who had won Paris-Nice so impressively in the spring.
Through it all, a short interview in his home country aside, Betancur remained inscrutable and his reputation as one of the great enigmas of the modern peloton was only cemented further. Even after his return to action in Spain, the 25-year-old was typically concise when asked about his absence.
Since arriving in Argentina for the Tour de San Luis, however, Betancur has been rather more expansive than had perhaps previously been the case, even if the precise reasons for his hiatus last summer remain vague.
Late on the night before race started, for instance, Betancur visited ESPN’s makeshift television studio on a pavement in San Luis and he sat by streetlight until almost midnight amiably discussing his 2015 prospects.
At the start of stage 1 on Monday, Betancur’s path to the signing on podium was blocked by myriad photo requests from local fans and he obliged with each and every one, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses but his mouth creasing into a mild smile. As he waited for the call to the start line, he mingled readily with the star-struck members of the Panamanian team.
As was the case last year, Betancur has arrived at the Tour de San Luis carrying some generous winter padding, and while that excess weight proved no burden when he went on to win Paris-Nice later in the spring, he told Cyclingnews that he had no aspirations at all of collecting an early victory in Argentina this week.
“I trained well when I was in Colombia but it’s hard to think about getting a big result here. Above all, I’m here to get a bit of race rhythm and get some kilometres in my legs,” Betancur said as he waited for the start of stage 1. “But I think I’m going well. I’m very happy to start this 2015 and I think that some beautiful things are going to happen.”
Betancur was vague on the reasons for that summer-long lost weekend and he preferred not to dwell on the thorny matter of his agent’s attempt to extricate him from his contract with Ag2r-La Mondiale, two years ahead of its expiration.
“You know, when there’s a problem, everybody has his own solution,” Betancur said. “They thought they were right, I thought I was right. In the end we had a discussion and we decided on the best course of action for both of us.”
Betancur was in full agreement with the first course of action brokered by their discussions, namely that he return to Europe before the end of 2014 to get some racing miles in his legs. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have done any races from May so for me that was very important,” he said.
He was less enamoured, however, by Lavenu’s suggestion that he base himself permanently in Europe, rather than spend the majority of his time at home in the Antioquia department in Colombia. “Yes, yes, but you know what can I say? The team and I are looking to communicate well and look to do the best we can for everyone,” Betancur said.
When he does make the trek across to Europe, Betancur’s base on the other side of the Atlantic is, as ever, in Tuscany, and he confirmed that Michele Bartoli is again his personal trainer for the coming season. Betancur will not leave South America until March, however, just in time for Tirreno-Adriatico. “Then after that, I’ll be staying in Europe until after the Giro d’Italia,” he added.
Indeed, the Giro is the overriding goal of Betancur’s season. A pugnacious display two years ago carried him to 5th place overall and the white jersey of best young rider, and despite his troubles last season, he has set himself the goal of improving on that showing this time around.
“When you start off the year, you always want to do better than you’ve done before and it’s the same for the Giro. I want to do better,” he said. “If not, then I’m sorry, but I’m setting out with the intention to do better than I did two years ago.”
Betancur’s achievements to date have been superseded by those of his fellow countrymen Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, who have conquered podiums at Grand Tours and – crucially – married rigour and consistency to their natural ability. There are some who maintain that Betancur is the most exciting talent of the trio, but he admitted that he still has everything to prove.
“Up to now I haven’t shown anything,” he said. “When I show something, only then can I say that I’m better than the others.”