Colombian Carlos Betancur wins Paris-Nice race

The Associated Press

NICE, France (AP) -- Carlos Betancur became the first Colombian rider to win the Paris-Nice cycling race while Arthur Vichot of France finished first on the last stage on Sunday.

Betancur safely protected his 14-second lead over world champion Rui Costa of Portugal by finishing in the main pack on the final stage. Costa crashed on the final straight.

''It's really a morale booster before the classics,'' Betancur said. ''The rest of my program of the season will climax with the Tour de France in which I will have real ambitions.''

Vichot outsprinted Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil and Cyril Gautier on the Promenade des Anglais to finish the 128-kilometer trek around Nice in 3 hours, 6 minutes, 56 seconds. The stage win lifted Vichot into third overall, 20 seconds behind Betancur.

Betancur won two stages in the week-long race. He finished fifth in last year's Giro d'Italia.

''It's a great honor to win such a great race and to show that Colombian cycling is back,'' Betancur said. ''I was very proud with my fifth place in the Giro d'Italia but this is greater. It's more important to win such a great race ahead of so many great riders. It also shows what a strong team AG2R is.''

Team manager Vincent Lavenu said he hadn't even planned on entering Betancur in the race at first.

''Originally we had planned to field Jean-Christophe Peraud on Paris-Nice,'' AG2R manager Vincent Lavenu said, ''but when we realized there was no time trial, we decided to opt for Carlos, who would have lost time in a timed effort. He is only at the beginning of a great career and has the talent to one day win a Grand Tour.''

Frank Schleck and Simon Spilak broke away from the pack on the ascent of Col d'Eze but were caught in the last kilometer.

Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen were among the riders who did not start the stage. Thomas was a contender for the race victory but suffered a late crash in Saturday's stage. Team Sky said Thomas ''should return'' for the Milan-San Remo race on March 23.

Tom Boonen, Tyler Farrar and Thomas Voeckler were among the riders to drop out early in the stage that featured five climbs.

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