Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) is back. The former world champion never really went away, but it’s fair to say that he lost his winning touch since pulling on the rainbow stripes. He won four races in the three seasons that followed Florence in 2013 – with none last year – but he has now almost matched that tally in the space of two months with a blistering start to the 2017 campaign.
The Portuguese rider sealed the overall title at the Abu Dhabi Tour on Sunday, a day after taking the race lead with a fine stage win on the Jebel Hafeet summit finish. It comes after he won the summit finish stage at his first race, the Vuelta a San Juan, and then finished second overall at the Tour of Oman having placed third on Green Mountain.
“In the winter I didn’t change a lot. The only changes was that I was feel better, had fewer problems with the weather, and this helped me to train properly,” said Costa, explaining his form.
“From the start of the season immediately I felt good and was able to pick up a result, which was very important. I’m really pleased with how things have gone so far.”
Costa can now look ahead with considerable confidence to his next objectives, namely Tirreno-Adriatico in a couple of weeks, followed by a debut at the Giro d’Italia.
“My advantage now is that I’m in great form,” he said of his chances at Tirreno.
“I have actually raced a bit more than the other GC contenders here, many of whom will be at the Giro. It’s the first race for a lot of the guys. Tirreno is not far away, so I will hold my form. I can’t say I’m a favourite, and I’ll have to see how it goes day-by-day, but I’m very confident I can do well.
“The complication in Tirreno will be the time trials – there’s one individual time trial and one team time trial. That’s a factor that could impact my result.”
As for the Giro, Costa has hinted he will target the overall title, having previously switched his focus to hunting stage wins at the last Tour de France. He was cagey about how he will approach the corsa rosa, but will now surely be one to watch whatever he decides – especially in the tough final week.
“It’s my first Giro, and the fact is I don’t know the climbs in Italy very well,” said Costa, who nevertheless speaks fluent Italian. “I have to go day-by-day and see how I perform, and if my legs respond … objectives can change. I don’t really want to say I’m going for GC. What is certain is that the part of the Giro I’m expecting to perform is the final week.”
Costa’s victory in Abu Dhabi was all the more significant given the logo on his jersey. A takeover from the United Arab Emirates saw the Lampre team morph into the UAE Abu Dhabi team at the start of the season, and with new investment from Emirates Airlines announced on the eve of this race, it has become UAE Team Emirates.
And Costa has become something of a talisman. With his success in San Juan, Costa wrote himself into the ‘new’ team’s history by landing their first ever victory, and he similarly became their first rider to win under the new name and with the new sponsor on the jersey.
“This victory is actually more important than just its sporting merits,” said Costa, explaining he’d been congratulated by Matar Suhail Al Yabhouni Al Dhaheri, the new team president.
“We didn’t speak too much but was he was very, very happy, and the thing he focused on was the fact my victory was great for the country, because one of the goals of the team is to raise awareness of cycling and in particular cycling for kids. If someone sees a rider from a local team winning a local race, it boosts morale of kids and gets them on their bikes, which is a good result for general health of the country.”