Rui Costa seemed to have the world at his feet in 2013. The Portuguese rider, then 26, won the Tour de Suisse and two stages at the Tour de France, and capped it off by becoming world champion in Florence.
His fortunes since have been something of a curiosity. A stage and the overall at Suisse in 2014, and a stage at the 2015 Criterium du Dauphiné are the only additions to a palmares that had threatened to burgeon as he entered his prime.
That said, Costa was hardly flailing. In 2014 he was on the podium of the Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, GP de Montreal, and Il Lombardia, while top 5's at Paris-Nice, Fleche-Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Dauphine, and Montreal followed in 2015.
Last year was his only barren campaign in seven years as a pro, but he was similarly consistent – top 10 at the Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, Pais Vasco, Romandie, and Suisse, and a podium at Liege.
"The year after I won the Worlds, in 2014, I was doing well. There were lots of second places, but at the end of the day it was a good season. 2015, too. Last year, in truth, was very similar – I had another good season. I felt really strong and was very close to winning – stages in the Tour, in Montreal. I was very close. Other races too. I tried a lot. It was just the victory that was lacking."
The margins between winning and coming close can be tight, mysterious even, and Costa has never had cause to doubt his ability or revolutionise his approach to training or racing.
"Coming second is disappointing but it's nothing to cry about because it shows that you're up there, fighting," he said. "In all walks of life it's important to have a stroke of luck. The first thing is to work hard, and that's there. But after that, the click – that only comes along at a certain moment.
"Winning is important for your motivation, but I have never let my head drop, I've continued to work, and I hope that this year, with the strength I know I have, things will go a little better and the victory will come – as soon as possible."
Costa will broaden his horizons this year as he makes the Giro d'Italia the fulcrum of his season. He has done the Tour de France every season since turning professional, and this will be his first appearance in one of the other Grand Tours.
"Normally I do lots of races in France, and I've always done the Tour, but this year the Giro will be the focus," he said, explaining that "the Giro tends to be more open than the Tour, this one is a very hard one, and it's also the 100th edition, and everyone will be really up for it because it's historic."
The Portuguese rider threatened to switch his focus from the general classification to stage wins at the Tour last year, and ended up doing so after struggling at the start of the race. At the Giro, however, the GC is back on the agenda.
"The principal objective is to go for GC, try to achieve a good placing. I'm up for it and will fight for it," he said.
"The time trials make a big difference, that's true," he added, referring to the Giro's two time trials that total 67km. "But this year with the new Colnago bike I'm hoping I won't lose much time to the other GC riders."
With the switch of focus, Costa will be adopting a "more Italian calendar", with Tirreno-Adiratico a key race after the Tour of Oman and the Abu Dhabi Tour, which follow San Juan. He will then head to altitude for a training camp to finalise his preparations, with the Giro preceded by another tilt at the Ardennes Classics – where he has often come close but never been a winner.
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