Rui Costa surprised many by signing a contract with Italian team Lampre-Merida, but he is happy with his choice. “This team fits me,” he said at the team presentation on Mallorca. “I feel honoured that Lampre-Merida welcomes me as their captain.”
The Portuguese rider started his career with Benfica, when the famous football club had a cycling program, later moving to Spain to ride with Caisse d’Epargne and Movistar before signing a one-year contract with the Italians.
“Italy feels lucky for me, because I won big races as an U23-rider there. I love the country and it’s where I became world champion,” said Costa. “I am improving my Italian too and I fit in the team. They warmly welcomed me and I feel honoured that they want to have me as their captain. It’s a good team with good, young riders.”
The 27-year-old from Porto doesn’t plan on changing much this season. “I improve a little bit year after year, so I’ll keep doing what I do.”
After the race in Dubai where Rui Costa showed his rainbow colours in several attacks, he will ride in Algarve, Paris-Nice and the Ardennes Classics before targeting the Tour de France.
“Normally I start my season in Mallorca but this year we started in Dubai. I had never been there, but it was a nice opportunity because of the great weather. For an early season race, everything went very well.”
Last year Costa crashed out of Paris-Nice, when he was feeling really well. This year the WorldTour race consists of eight stages and no time trials. For the multiple Tour de France stage winner and reigning Tour de Suisse champion, the race in France is an important objective.
Costa had a lot of success last year, but his biggest was winning the road race at the World Championship. For Portugal, a country with only a handful of professional cyclists, having a world champion was a first.
“It came as a surprise, even to myself. I never expected to win it so soon.“
He is aware of the responsibilities that come with the world title. In a country with a big continental cycling scene, Costa is an important example and he hopes to give back to his country.
“If I can do anything to help Portuguese cycling move forward, I would love to. It’s a small country, we do not have that many [riders] but they are very good. It’s a matter of giving us the chance to move forward, to move abroad.”
His predecessor in the rainbow jersey, Philippe Gilbert had trouble delivering results after his victory in 2012, as have many other world champions before him.
“I know that people are watching me. The jersey is a target and the peloton is now aware of my presence. But, obviously, I will try to win something this year,” he smiled, referring to the alleged curse of the rainbow jersey.
While riders like Chris Froome and Alberto Contador plan on changing their build-up to the Tour de France, Costa wants to keep doing what he does. Out of the shadows of the likes of his former teammates Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde he hopes to do well in the overall.
“I don’t care what the others do in terms of preparation for the Tour de France. I do what I think is right for me. For the Tour, I hope to do a good overall, to go for a top ten place. The first week will be crucial for the overall. The departure from Yorkshire and the fifth [cobbled] stage will be tough. After that week we’ll see.”
Before the departure in Yorkshire, the Lampre-Merida captain aims for the podium in the Ardennes Spring Classics.
“I cannot hide the fact that I really like the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège [where he finished in ninth place in 2013]. They suit me well and I aim for a podium place this year.”
First up on the calendar for the 2013 World Champion is his home tour the Volta al Algarve. “I want to do well there because it’s a rare opportunity to race in front of my fans. I want to do well in front of those people who supported me the most throughout the years,” he smiled.