One of cycling's most poignant customs is the unwavering loyalty of the domestique, and after sacrificing his own overall ambitions in a fruitless bid to salvage those of his Movistar leader Alejandro Valverde, Rui Costa was repaid for his selflessness with victory on stage 16 of the Tour de France.
When Valverde broke a wheel on the road to Saint-Amand-Montrond last week just as the peloton was being buffeted by crosswind and shattered into pieces, all of the Movistar team with the exception of Nairo Quintana was ordered to drop back, including Rui Costa, then lying 9th overall and with a burgeoning palmares that features the last two editions of the Tour de Suisse.
Eyebrows were raised at that decision, all the more so given that Valverde ultimately lost almost ten minutes and all hopes of a podium place, but Rui Costa unblinkingly accepted his burden. Such is the reality of the hierarchies that bind professional cycling teams.
"The first week of the Tour was perfect for me and the team but that changed after Alejandro's puncture as I had to stop and wait for him," Rui Costa said. "After that, I forgot about my own GC chances and started to think about stage wins. But it's not a problem for me to be in this team with Nairo and Alejandro. There are three Grand Tours on the calendar and plenty of races for everybody."
While Rui Costa's teammate Quintana is now the man charged with landing a podium place for Movistar, the Portuguese rider was given free rein the infiltrate the early break, which took some considerable time to form given the presence of Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) among the early attackers.
"Yesterday, I was already thinking about entering the breaks," Rui Costa said. "I knew today would be a good day for me. Having two climbs at the start of the stage meant that you would make the break on your strength alone and not by relying on good luck. Although, it was hard to get the break going because there were a lot of riders trying to stay in front."
When the dust settled after the Col de Macuègne, there were 26 riders out in front, and their advantage over the peloton quickly chugged out above the ten-minute mark. Although Blel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale) kick-started the attacking with 35 kilometres still to race, Rui Costa had the nous – and the legs – to hold his fire for the final climb, the Col de Manse.
"I really knew the place to move was the last climb and everything went as I planned. I jumped into the uphill and reached the top with a gap," he said. "I came to the summit with 40 seconds and after the descent, 3k from the finish, I already knew I was going to win."
Rui Costa is the rider who has received more fan mail than anyone else at this Tour de France, and he arrived into Gap 42 seconds ahead of the chasers to deliver the second Tour stage win of his career, after his victory at Super-Besse two years ago.
"Winning a stage in the Tour is really difficult, but winning two… I have no words for that," he said. "I mean, I fought for this last year too, but it's harder to get success here than anywhere else."
Rui Costa was suspended in 2010 when he tested positive for the stimulant Methylhexanamine at the Portuguese championships, but the ban was shortened to five months when he was able to demonstrate that the positive was triggered by a contaminated food supplement.
"All of that was a long time ago. The past is the past," he said. "Time has passed. Today I won, and I want to enjoy that."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.