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The Roar

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Nice guys finish last: What does it take to be a pro cyclist?

Lance Armstrong - says he'd probably do it all again. Seriously? (Image: AFP)
Expert
12th June, 2014
2

In years to come, Colombian cycling fans may ask Carlos Bentacur, “Where did it all go wrong, Carlos?”

The 24-year-old had all a young pro cyclist could wish for – a very decent salary, a flat in Europe, the respect of his peers, and an exciting future.

Second in the U23 Road World Champs in 2009, winner of the Baby Giro in 2010, and ninth in the Giro di Lombardia in 2011, is a palmares that speaks volumes for the potential this young lad has in his legs.

Over the following years things just got better. 2012 saw victories in the Trofeo Melinda, a stage in the Tour of Belgium and at the Giro di Padania, and then a very decent fourth at the Giro del Trentino, where he also took the young rider classification.

In 2013 he was third at Le Fleche Wallone, fourth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and fifth overall at the Giro d’Italia, claiming the young rider jersey once again.

This year he won the Tour de Haut Var and was first in the points classification there. Most impressive of all, he won Paris-Nice and two stages on the way to the top of the podium.

“All that pointed to a brilliant future,” they may be saying in five years. “So what went wrong?”

“I just didn’t like it over there,” may come Carlos’ reply.

Amazing as it seems, there is a very real possibility that Carlos Betancur may miss the Tour de France because he finds living in Europe “difficult”.

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Vincent Lavenu, Bentacur’s Ag2r team manager, was interviewed this week in the UK’s Cycling Weekly, telling them that because his rider missed a flight from Colombia his European visa had now expired, and he may not get a new one in time for the Tour.

“It’s annoying. There’s always problems with him,” said Lavenu. “It pushes everything back. We can get an extension with the French, but if he doesn’t show up by the end of the month, we have to start everything over again in Colombia. It’s put his whole season in doubt.”

Betancur cited illness as the reason for the missed plane, and he did pull out of the Tour of the Basque Country because of illness. But Lavenu’s anger is understandable given that his charge did not contact the team before he decided not to get on the flight.

A fait accompli, as I believe they say in Adelaide.

“We communicate a lot with him but don’t get much in return, that’s very frustrating,” Lavenu continued. “He didn’t take his [flight], he said that he didn’t feel good and wouldn’t get on the plane, but at that point, you are dealing with something that already happened. That’s not the way it should work, you should know beforehand. You just don’t not get on the plane and not tell anyone.

“Maybe he can win the Giro d’Italia one day, but it’s really difficult to work with him.”

There’s no doubt that Betancur is immensely talented, but maybe he just doesn’t like France? Or the French? He wouldn’t be the first foreign cyclist to harbor such feelings, but to actually sabotage your own chance to race in the world’s maddest bike race?

Could be that he’d find more peace on a Spanish team. Many South Americans in the past have raced in Spain for obvious reasons.

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Could also be that he is actually sick, and that he’ll even get his visa sorted out in time to get back to Europe to start the Tour.

However, Betancur’s current situation and Lavenu’s take on it all does highlight the fact that a rider can have all the talent in the world, but if his mind is not focused nor indeed strong enough to harness that ability, invariably the wheels will come off.

How many riders have been touted as ‘the next Eddy Merckx’, only to bellyflop with a massive splash into the kiddies pool.

One rider who was hailed as the next Eddy – and by Eddy himself, no less – was Edvald Boasson Hagen. After a promising start and some cracking wins, Edvald then kind of slid into Sky’s underbelly and more or less hasn’t moved since.

Is he an uber-domestique? Or an example of failed potential and a cracked headset? Or, indeed, was everybody wrong about him and did they simply misjudge his natural abilities in the first place?

The history of cycling is littered with riders who had the legs but not the mental capabilities that make a true champion. Some were too nice (a crime in pro cycling), others too soft, others too nuts for their own good.

Frank Vandenbroucke is a tragic yet perfect example of the latter. FVB had talents bestowed by the cycling gods but a mind that needed proper professional help. The issue of mental illness and drug addiction are not hot topics in sports and those suffering from depression, addiction and whatever else often feel that they cannot ask for help. More often than not, they are not offered it either.

At the other ends of the scale are the riders who are not that talented, but were born with – or suddenly acquired – a burning desire to become a professional rider, and nothing was going to stop them from realising that dream. For these men and women, it wasn’t natural talent that got then in the top ranks but their determination and strength of character.

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This lot don’t get on the first plane home because they missed their mates and the banter at the local pub. No, they grind it out, do a job for their team and fight for every scrap they can get.

Now, if you can take that sense of determination and weld it to the kind of talent a rider like FVB had, you’ve got yourself a thoroughbred champion. Maybe a guy like… Lance Armstrong?

It does seem that when great sporting talent is combined with a steely resolve, hardened in the furnaces of hell, the product is an athlete you would not want to have a beer with.

Or even worse, a full-blown sociopath. I like the nice guys. They just tend to not make very exciting bike riders.

Who knows, maybe Betancur has the right idea. Better to sit it out and let the nutcases get on with it.