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Success in cycling depends on many factors: talent, character, preparation—and a little bit of luck. Rui Costa has run the gamut of all those things, but most of all he just wants to be racing, gritting his teeth and taking his body to the limit for his fans—or, as he likes to call them, his friends. And Costa has given those friends many tears of joy in the last few years and restored Portugal’s passion for bike racing.
Words: Miguel Andrade
Images: Kare Dehlie Thorstad & Yuzuru Sunada
Costa is the leader of a new generation of Portuguese riders, which last had a complete team (Sporting Lisbao-Raposeira) at the Tour de France in 1984. At this year’s Tour, the “team” was comprised of five riders on three foreign-sponsored teams: Sérgio Paulinho, a right-hand man for Alberto Contador at Tinkoff-Saxo; Tiago Machado and José Mendes with NetApp-Endura; and Nelson Oliveira, the current Portuguese national road and time trial champion, who rides with Costa at Lampre-Merida.
In a country where the main activity, soccer, draws thousands of people to stadiums, generates massive rivalries and even influences politics, it’s not easy to succeed in a sport with less support from the public and media. Cycling’s popularity was at a peak in the late-1970s, when Joaquim Agostinho, the legendary Portuguese rider twice placed third at the Tour de France. There’s an Agostinho monument in the 14th curve of the climb to L’Alpe d’Huez commemorating his stage victory there at the 1979 Tour. His successes filled Portuguese streets with enthusiastic fans to welcome home their first international cycling star.
At 27, Costa has already been compared with Agostinho—and he has hopes of not only emanating the late Portuguese hero but also going two steps higher and one day winning a grand tour. He has already made his country happy by taking the 2013 world road title in Florence, and so everyone in Portugal—even the ones who don’t normally follow cycling—know who he is and how he has become the world champion. Costa’s status was enhanced at this year’s Tour de France when Portugal’s greatest football manager, José Mourinho of the Premier League’s Chelsea, accepted the cyclist’s invitation to attend the prestigious London stage finish on July 7.
Mourinho said he has been closely following Costa’s career, especially when his cyclist friend won the rainbow jersey in Florence last September. That night, the Portuguese nation took note of his achievement, with television news repeatedly showing the moment he crossed the finish line. For Costa, it was a dream that he still cannot believe came true.
Portugal’s new champ is like that: humble and funny, but when he’s offered an opportunity to win he doesn’t miss it. It was like that in 2011 when he won stage 8 of the Tour de France on a hilltop finish at Super-Besse; when he took two stages of the 2013 Tour—becoming only the second Portuguese to achieve such a feat after Agostinho; and when, this year, he became the first rider ever to win the Tour de Suisse three years in a row.
Like many of Portugal’s pro racers, Rui Costa was born in the country’s Norte region, in the coastal town of Póvoa de Varzim—known for its fishermen and seafood. At age 9, Costa joined a track-and-field club, where he stayed for two years. But because of his father who was into cycling he began riding in a team called Guilhabreu in the neighboring town of Vila do Conde, which has an extensive bike culture.
At 21, Costa signed his first pro contract with Benfica, one of the biggest soccer clubs in Portugal, which had just reintroduced its cycling team. He did well and came to international prominence by winning Italy’s Giro delle Regioni in 2007 and placing second (to Belgium’s Jan Bakelants) at the even more prestigious under-23 stage race, the Tour de l’Avenir, in 2008. Those performances were a boon for Costa when, at the end of that season, Benfica again killed its cycling section.
Costa did not have to wait long for a new team because Caisse d’Épargne snapped him up on the evidence of his Avenir ride. He soon rewarded the Spanish squad by winning the 2009 Four Days of Dunkirk and taking a stage of the 2010 Tour de Suisse.
Everything seemed to be going in the right direction, but Costa suffered a setback that summer. At the Portuguese national championships, in June 2010, Costa and his brother Mario both tested positive for the banned substance methylhexanamine—which they claimed to have ingested inadvertently in a tainted food supplement. Further testing proved their plea and after five months of suspension Costa rejoined Caisse d’Épargne—which became Movistar in 2011.
That year was his breakthrough season. He wanted to prove to everyone that they were wrong to condemn him over the positive drug test. In stage 8 of the 2011 Tour de France, Costa rode away solo to win at Super-Besse in the Massif Central, finishing ahead of Belgian star Philippe Gilbert. Then, in September that year, Costa surprised the cycling world even more by sprinting away from a late breakaway to win the Grand Prix de Montréal ahead of Frenchman Pierrick Fédrigo and Gilbert—the first time a Portuguese rider had won a UCI WorldTour race.
But who was this smiling Portuguese rider?
Costa confirmed his class in 2012 with his first overall victory at the Tour de Suisse. His stage 2 win on the mountaintop finish at Verbier was enough for him to take the race lead, and he successfully defended the yellow jersey for a week to win by 14 seconds over runner-up Fränk Schleck. That win in Switzerland proved Costa’s capacity to be a team leader but in the Tour de France right after he had to support Movistar leader Alejandro Valverde—even though Costa ended up in 18th overall, two places ahead of the Spanish rider.
While Costa says 2011 and 2012 were years that “will always bring so many good memories,” it was 2013 that put him into the cycling history books. After another victory in the Tour de Suisse—this time taking the yellow jersey from the Swiss rider Mathias Frank by winning the last day’s uphill time trial—the Portuguese had the same fate as in 2012 at the Tour de France. He again had to back up Valverde—who was lying second overall before he flatted and lost close to 10 minutes on the windswept stage 13 to St. Amand-Montrond. But Costa’s fighting spirit did not let him down and he went on to win two climbing stages in the Alps, at Gap and Le Grand Bornand.
But the biggest reward for all his hard work came at the world road championships in Italy. The punishing 16.5-kilometer circuit in Florence, coupled with the horrendously wet conditions, took their toll as riders dropped out at an average of around 15 a lap. Defending champion Gilbert and fellow pre-race favorites Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara were in the front group, but they were unable to respond when Italy’s Michele Scarponi and Vicenzo Nibali, and Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez, attacked on the final long climb to Fiesole, eventually finishing in a group 34 seconds behind Costa. Rodriguez rode away from Giro d’Italia champion Nibali, but was unable to open a significant advantage on the final ascent of the wall-like Via Salviati.
Costa then raced clear of Nibali and Valverde to catch Rodriguez with one kilometer remaining before making the decisive move in a labored sprint to become Portugal’s first-ever world champion. “It was a dream that still doesn’t seem true,” Costa said. “It was like being the rider who was on the TV when I was watching cycling races with my father.”
Now that he’s the Lampre-Merida team leader wearing the rainbow jersey Costa says he’ll be fighting to be in the top 10 (or better) at each grand tour he rides—but his biggest goals are the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic and then the Olympic road race at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Follow Miguel Andrade on Instagram: @miguelcrandrade