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Tour de France

How far can Costa go in Tour? Suisse win raises expectations

Rui Costa's Tour de Suisse victory raises expectations that he could be an outsider for the podium at next month's Tour de France

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Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) finally got the victory that was eluding him so far in his season as world champion. After languishing with a string of near-misses all year, including 10 top-three finishes, the Portuguese world champ delivered the double Sunday to emphatically put an end to chatter about a rainbow jersey curse.

Costa attacked to win the final stage, and claimed the overall at the Tour de Suisse for the third consecutive year.

Long considered the season’s “fourth” grand tour, the dramatic double-win Sunday raises expectations for Costa heading into next month’s Tour de France.

“What a wonderful day. To win the stage and the overall, I could have not asked for a better ending,” Costa said Sunday. “No one’s ever won the Tour de Suisse three times in a row, and to do it while wearing the rainbow jersey brings even greater satisfaction.”

It didn’t look it was going to happen for Costa, who started Sunday’s ninth and final stage in third at 1:05 behind Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who stubbornly held the lead since the opening prologue. The big German was holding steady in the climbs, and only needed to fend off Costa and the other climbers Sunday to claim outright victory.

But GC rivals ganged up on an out-gunned Martin, who finally cracked on the beyond-category finale up Saas-Fee when Costa bridged across to an early breakaway on the penultimate climb. Martin was forced to chase alone, and ceded 2:18 to Costa, and ended up losing the podium after settling in fourth overall at 1:13 back.

The thrilling battle served as confirmation on two fronts.

First, Martin will likely never become a true Tour de France contender, simply because he cannot defend against piercing attacks in the deep mountains. The German has proven he can win week-long stage races, and perhaps the Tour de Suisse some day will be within his reach, but the big climbs of the grand tours are simply too much.

“I was strong enough to maybe win this year,” Martin said in a team release. “But at the end, it was difficult when cooperation within the chase group wasn’t there and we had a team here focused on the stages and the sprints. But, OK that’s it. I think the work I did for the race, I need to be happy. I just need to try again at the next race if there is a chance to fight again for the GC.”

And for Costa, his Swiss victory serves an enticing glimpse that he might be able to go far in the Tour in what’s his first time taking on the French tour as a protected GC captain.

“We are excited to see what Rui can do in the Tour,” Lampre-Merida manager Brent Copeland told VeloNews last week. “Rui will be riding as a protected rider for the first time in the Tour. We think a top-10 is possible, and perhaps even more. We will bring a strong team to support him.”

Costa switched from Movistar to Lampre-Merida in large part to have a shot at leading in the grand tours. The Spanish team still counts on the services of veteran Alejandro Valverde, and with the rise of Nairo Quintana, who was second in the Tour last year and won the Giro d’Italia in May, Costa could see the writing on the wall.

“I am excited about having a chance to ride for my own chances at the Tour. I think I can do it fairly well,” Costa told VeloNews earlier this season. “Riders like [Chris] Froome and [Alberto] Contador are on a higher level, but I think I can be in the mix of riders fighting behind them.”

Costa was hesitant to publicly declare just how far he thinks he can go in the Tour. As he recognized, Froome (Sky) and Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) are clearly on a higher level than the rest of the field, and the pair will start July 5 in England as the top favorites.

Behind them, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is viewed as the natural candidate for a third-place slot. Behind the top-three, there are another dozen riders who will all be fighting to ride as near as the podium as possible.

Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) is flying high after winning the Critérium du Dauphiné in dramatic fashion against Froome and Contador, while others, such as Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Valverde, Bauke Mollema (Belkin), Dani Navarro (Cofidis), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and others all trying to crowd into the top-10 in Paris.

Like Martin, Costa has proven he can win shorter stage races, but making the leap to serious contention in the Tour de France is something else entirely.

Costa beat back potential Tour rivals, such as Mollema, Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling), results that will boost his confidence going into July.

Of the three grand tours, Costa has only raced Tour, starting with his debut in 2009, when he did not finish. Since then, he finished fourth straight editions, winning three stages. His best overall was 18th in 2012 with Movistar.

In the past, Costa has never really pushed the GC in the Tour. As he’s gained experience in the Tour, he’s been content to work for team captains, and then chase his chances for breakaway stage victories. So far, that’s worked like a charm, with a stage victory in 2011, and two in 2013.

Those victories were all predicated on the fact that he was not viewed as a legitimate GC contender, and the peloton would let him ride away. That’s bound to change in 2014, as the peloton will have its collective ears pricked up every time Costa makes a move in the peloton. Having the rainbow stripes on his back won’t help.

Costa also said he’s worked on his time trialing, something that was in evidence during the Tour de Suisse, when he was third at 28 seconds back in 24.7km rolling course, a result that kept him within distance of Martin.

“To seriously be a challenger, I know I need to time trial better,” Costa said earlier this year. “It’s something I have already worked on to improve. The idea of challenging for the Tour is a project for the next few years. This will be the first time as a leader, so I will learn, do my best, and also build for the future.”

Copeland also told VeloNews that Costa will share leadership duties with American veteran Chris Horner, who returned to competition at last week’s Tour of Slovenia for the first time since his harrowing training crash in April.

The official Lampre-Merida Tour lineup will be finalized this week, but Copeland indicated that Horner would likely be racing.

Having a proven grand tour winner like Horner around will only enhance the team’s depth, and help Costa handle the pressure of leadership.

“Chris is incredibly experienced. He will be able to help Rui, as well as have some freedom to see what he can do,” Copeland said. “We will bring a team to protect Rui and Chris, as well as give Sacha [Modolo] some help in the sprints. It’s a challenge to build the team that way, but we have riders who can do more than just one thing.”

While some riders might consider having a second GC option as a distraction, Costa will likely be grateful Horner will be racing the Tour. Initially, the Vuelta a España champion was going to race the Giro, but his crash forced a major reshuffling of his schedule, opening the door for a Tour start.

Horner’s never been a fully protected rider at the Tour, either, but his condition will be somewhat of a question mark, especially considering he’s coming back from his injury with only a handful of race days. Horner rode safely through the Slovenian tour, careful to avoid mishaps, and finished 14th at 2:15 behind winner Tiago Machado (NetApp-Endura).

Copeland said having both of them as GC options will only help.

“By the first real mountain climb, then we’ll know where everyone stands on GC. The race will work itself out,” Copeland continued. “The most important step is to get through that first week in England and over the cobbles, then we can start concentrating on the tactics and goals of each rider. The perfect scenario would be to have both Rui and Chris up in the GC going into the second half of the Tour.”

Costa will certainly be on the radars of rival teams. Everyone knows how lethal he can be, and with the lone time trial not coming until after the Alps and Pyrénées, rivals will be keeping a close eye on the ambitious Portuguese rider.

Just as he revealed in last year’s thrilling attack to snatch the world title from Spain, Costa is a danger in any race, something he reconfirmed Sunday to win the Tour de Suisse.