Adrien Costa turned 19 on the eve of the Tour de l'Avenir Friday evening, and the crowd of Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne, cheered the American gem during the team presentation with a "Joyeux Anniversaire" song - "Happy Birthday" in French, a language that the Californian rider speaks perfectly, with both his parents coming from the other side of the Atlantic.
Despite his young age, Costa proved Monday that he is a rising star in the U23 category by crushing the time trial stage at the Tour de l'Avenir. On the 16.5km course around Lugny, Burgundy, he beat his countryman, Neilsson Powless, by two seconds and Britain's Jonathan Dibben by seven seconds, becoming the first American to capture a stage at the "Little Tour de France" since Taylor Phinney in 2010.
"I am surprised to win because there were some time trial specialists at the start," he told Cyclingnews after his stage win. "But I am in good shape and the Tour de l'Avenir is my main goal this year."
Earlier this year, Costa won the Tour de Bretagne, a UCI 2.2 event, and went second at the 2.HC Tour of Utah behind Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) and ahead of Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac). These results confirmed the promise shown in his junior years, when he won overall at the Tour de l'Abitibi in Canada, and twice won the general classification at the Tour du Pays de Vaud in Switzerland.
Costa's new challenge is to win the main stage races for the U23 category, even if he states he has "no pressure". This all-rounder, who performs equally well in the high mountains, small climbs and time trials, showed his ambitions Monday by launching a powerful and unexpected attack on a relatively quiet stage, spreading some panic among the other favourites.
"You always have to try," Costa said. "I like races when they are unpredictable. I love mountains, and I will be on my favourite terrain in the coming days [from Wednesday to Saturday, ed.]. But I enjoy everything in cycling."
Following this philosophy, the American young gun experienced U23 Paris-Roubaix this year, his first race as a member of Axel Merckx's Axeon Hagens Berman's UCI Continental team roster.
He will continue to explore new types of races in 2017, too, from cobbles to passes, as he recently decided to remain one more year with Axeon at the Continental level.
"It's true I already have some contract offers, but I still have a lot to learn," Costa said. "Last Spring I lost a bit of confidence after I fell ill at the Peace Race. But this little break turned into a positive experience at the end. I learned to be even more patient."
Etixx-QuickStep will give him a foretaste of the world's first division, though, because Costa agreed to a trainee's contract for the Tour of Britain and two Belgian classics, the GP Impanis and the GP of Wallonie. After that, Costa will be free again: "I have not decided where I was going to race in 2018, this is too early...".
To some, Costa could look like a spoilt rider with a wealth of opportunity. He could have chosen the French nationality – an option that the French federation would have welcomed at the end of 2015. He can race in any WorldTour team. But, rather than a sense of entitlement, these open options have given him some sense of responsibility.
Surrounded by great coaches, supported by an agent since he was a Junior, a leader of the US national team, a rising star praised on all fans forums and already within some media reports, Costa keeps his head cool, always trying to find the right thing to do, the right word and to remain open to people and ideas.
At the Tour de l'Avenir, he found out that he had to wait for the doping control in a scorching day after the time trial and that he couldn't access some turbo trainer to cool down his body. "No problem," he said in his always-calm voice. While he was watching his rivals crossing the line, unsure he would keep the best time, he met a spectator and his son for five minutes and answered all their questions.
"What's your weight?"
"61 kilos," he responded.
"You do like mountains, right?" the flow of questions continued. "You must take some rest sometimes, but how do you do with that? How much do you train? Where do you live?”
In fact, Costa divides his time between the United States and Europe, and he would like to find a base in 2017, perhaps in Nice, where he spent several weeks last winter.
The spectator, a man in his 50s, told his son: "This is the next champion. You must take a picture with this 'grimpeur'-looking boy".
Costa kept his attention on the two curious spectators. "And you," he said to the 7-year-old boy, "you also seem to be a good climber for the future!"