It feels like it was only a month ago that I wrote a "who is" post about a Colombian rider from Ciudad Bolivar, in the department of Antioquia. And that's because it was a month ago that I did just that, after Julian Arredondo won the Tour of Langkawi. Now, for the second time this season, a native of the small Colombian town is getting a fair amount of attention, and it's well deserved.
With a population of only 27,000, Ciudad Bolivar is a relatively small town, which is named after Simon Bolivar, Colombia's great liberator. Born in Venezuela, Bolivar led the charge to gain independence and set up democracies in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama (then part of Colombia) and Bolivia.
One quick look at Ciudad Bolivar and its surrounding topography helps explain why a powerful climber with explosive abilities like Betancur comes from there. Nestled in a tiny valley within the Andes, the town is only big enough to fill the space between two peaks in the South American mountain range.
Aside from being small, Ciudad Bolivar is also young by Colombian standards, though no one has been able to pinpoint exactly when it was founded. Most estimates say it was "sometime between 1839 y 1853". It was in Ciudad Bolivar that Betancur grew up, surrounded by his parents and four brothers, a family that he's referred to in interviews as "simply beautiful." From a young age, he was referred to as "La Ronca" and "Bananito" (Bananito means "little banana" and La Ronca means "the hoarse one").
Betancur began cycling only 8 years ago, when he was 15 years old. He was first introduced to the sport through a local cycling academy in Ciudad Bolivar called CICLEB. There, local riders begin their training, often as early as five years old. This include understanding training regiments, nutrition and bike handling skills. Compared to many of his fellow CICLEB members, Betancur was a late starter.
As you'd expect when someone like Betancur has success on the world stage, everyone wants to take credit for it. But there are in fact a few people and institutions who clearly helped the 23 year old along the way. The CICLEB academy is one such institution, which puts great emphasis in creating not just better cyclists but better Colombians through sport. Consider the words of the academy's president. As she sees it, the club's goals are, "as an alternative for personal growth, and as a way of instilling values. We seek for these children to grow in a holistic manner, and that they understand the meaning of human rights, and of co-existing with others in a peaceful manner."
The club's secretary adds that they want kids to learn and grow, "taking in the basics of modern pedagogy: "know how to be, know how to understand, and know how to do'. In doing so, we are here to give our city and our department of Antioquia adults who will be good citizens who will actively work toward our ultimate goal of achieving peace."
After his formative years in CICLEB, Betancur joined the Orgullo Paisa (a team sponsored by the regional government, which has also been known as Indeportes Antioquia) in 2009 due to his impressive results. With that team, he won the 2009 U23 Vuelta a Colombia, and was second at the U23 World Championships (second to Romain Sicard).
Betancur is greeted in Ciudad Bolivar with a parade through town after winning the U23 Vuelta a Colombia. Just imagine the reception he'll get now. In this video, the town's mayor offers a monthly donation to the CICLEB club on his behalf, as well as a new home for Betancur and his family, along with a check for the equivalent of $2,000 (US).
In 2010, Betancur raced the Girobio with Colombia's national team, an effort that was sponsored by Acqua Sapone, making a substantial impression in Italy. This led to him signing with Acqua Sapone, a move that was encouraged by Giuseppe Acquadro. Acquadro is an Italian agent, who is often billed in the Colombian press as an "industrialist". He has significant contacts within Colombian cycling, and was responsible for taking Rigoberto Uran to Italy in 2006 to race for Tenax. It was during an early meeting with Uran that the Colombian rider mentioned another promising talent, his friend Sergio Henao. At that time, Henao passed on the chance to race in Italy at such an early age, and decided to stay in Colombia to develop further in the Colombia Es Pasion team.
During his first year as a professional in Italy, Betancur won the Giro dell'Emilia, was ninth overall at the Giro di Lombardia, and put an amazing show at the Giro d' Italia, as the youngest rider there. He was often able to climb with the best for long spans of time, while still being relatively unknown. In true Betancur style, he was fearless, a quality that has always been with him.
At the end of the 2011 season, Liquigas confirmed several times that Betancur had signed with them, while he denied the claims. Eventually, he stayed on with Acqua Sapone for another year, winning the Trofeo Melinda, stages at the Tour of Belgium, and Giro di Padania, as well as being fourth at the Giro del Trentino, and winning the young rider classification there.
This year, Betancur's season got off to a slow start. After being sick for much of the Tour de San Luis, he was forced to stay in Colombia and race there (winning the Clasica Rionegro, from which he was disqualified due to not signing in at the start of the race).
The reason he was not able to race in Europe early on this year had nothing to do with illness or lack of form however. It was due to a problem that plagues Colombians of all kinds, athletes or not. Sadly, we Colombians remain some of the most unwanted visitors a country could have, which makes getting travel visas unbelievably difficult at times. For Betancur, this meant that he was unable to race in four of his early-season targets: Strada Bianche, Roma Maxima, Milan San Remo and Tirreno Adriatico. Heartbroken, Betancur continued to train in Colombia, uncertain of what his future would hold.
The native of Ciudad Bolivar was not alone in his troubles. Last year, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran missed Sky's early season training camps, and nearly missed early races as well. This year, tour of Langkawi winner Julian Arredondo had the same problem, prompting him to race with a tourist visa, which means having to go back into Colombia at least every three months (all the way from Italy and Japan) during the entire season. Lampre-Merida's Jose Serpa had the same problem this year, and was thus unable to defend his title at the Tour of Langkawi, one of his favorite races.
Much of this issue stems from the difficulty that Colombians have with securing a Schengen visa , and sadly is unlikely to change anytime soon. In some cases, obtaining that visa can take up to a year, and also means trips to Colombia's capital of Bogota. More often than not, the decision is given on the spot, but if the answer is "no", you are not given a reason why. You're just out of luck. During the Giro, I spoke with four riders from Team Colombia, who all had different tales about the process of getting visas, each more amazing than the next. For riders like Betancur and Serpa, getting a visa means a few flights, or lengthy drives for each appointment at the corresponding embassies of the countries they are trying to work in.
When they were invited to race at the Tour of Utah, for example, the Indeportes Antioquia team had to set aside money in their budget for travel, so that each rider could make the trip to Bogota to begin their paperwork. The team had to pay for every rider to do this, not knowing who would have good form or health to go to the race. The paperwork was rushed, likely with help from powerful politicians, and the visas came just in time.
Nevertheless, Betancur managed to make it to Europe, and put on a show as soon as he arrived. He'd always said that he was eager to race at the Pro Tour level, and that once there, he'd try his hardest to win and make himself known. He already has. 3rd at Fleche Wallone, 4th at Liege Bastogne Liege, 7th at the Tour of the Basque country, an amazing showing at the Giro, while winning the white jersey.
Betancur will no doubt get a hero's welcome in Ciudad Bolivar, particularly when you consider that he was given a parade and a free home when he won the U23 Vuelta a Colombia (Update: Here's his parade). But let's hope that he doesn't have to miss early season races again due to visa problems.
Giro dell'Emilia (7:35)
Trofeo Melinda (final attacks 2:10)