Speaking to Cyclingnews at the start of stage 4 of the Vuelta a San Juan on Thursday, Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi) outlined his impatience to rediscover the sweet taste of victory, after 2016 went down as the first barren campaign of his career. Less than 24 hours later he was clenching his fist and letting out a guttural roar of celebration as he took the spoils atop the Alto de Colorado.
The Portuguese rider has been consistently strong since winning the World Championships in 2013, but has been unable to replicate the Midas touch he showed over the course of that campaign.
"I believe I deserve this victory, because I’ve been searching for one for a long time," said Costa in his post-race press conference.
"It’s always a good feeling. Being up there in the GC, fighting every day, getting second or third places is one thing, but winning is something else. To win again, this early stage in the season, it calms me down."
The stage represented the race’s only foray into the mountains and the Alto de Colorado posed a significant challenge – only 4.4 per cent in average gradient, but 15km long and rising to a gasping 2600 metres of altitude in the foothills of the Andes.
The gradient meant that the group would string out on the lower slopes and the race would become more explosive in the final few kilometres, and the closer he got to the summit, the more confident Costa became.
“The truth is, on the first day in the mountains you don’t really know how strong your rivals are. For ourselves, too – we don’t exactly know how strong we’ll be,” he said.
“The most complicated part was the altitude, and the lack of oxygen, it made it really tough there at the end. A summit finish at 2500 metres is a real test of the legs we have.
“There were lots of difficult moments but I felt I could do a good result. At the end there were of attacks, and that made it complicated, but I was able to follow all of them. Then in the final kilometre it became clear that I was the strongest.”
Thanks to the 10 bonus seconds he picked up on the line, Costa moved into fifth place overall, a position he is likely to maintain given the two remaining stages are flat. He had plenty of top fives last year, though; the number one next to his name is what will make all the difference.