Portugal’s Rui Costa can lay claim to being the most popular rider on the Tour de France, but his race had not been going entirely to plan until he broke away to record a morale-boosting win on Tuesday’s 16th stage. Costa, 26, won the stage into Gap by a margin of 42 seconds from a group of four riders after breaking clear with an impressive attack on the final climb of the day, the category two Col de Manse. It was the second stage win of his career on the Tour, following his triumph at Super-Besse on the eighth stage in 2011. But while his success is a rare one for Portugal in the sport’s biggest race, it will not come as a huge surprise to his many fans back home. After all, Costa beat football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo in the voting to be named Portugal’s top sportsman for 2012 and can also lay claim to be the most popular rider on this year’s Tour, with the race’s own postal service revealing that he has received more personal messages of support from adoring fans than anyone else.
“To win two times on the Tour is difficult and is something that means a lot to me,” said Costa after triumphing in the same town in which his compatriot Sergio Paulinho also won during the 2010 Tour. “This is a victory that I will never forget. One kilometre from the finish, I could see the line in the distance and I knew that the victory was mine. I have been waiting a long time for a moment like this. There were several of us in the escape but we were not going particularly fast because of the wind.”
He added: “There was one rider I was a little afraid of, Nicolas Roche, because he didn’t take many relays in the breakaway, but I knew where I was going to attack. I had to have a 40-second advantage at the summit so I wouldn’t have to take too many risks on the descent.”
Costa now sits in 20th place in the overall standings, 22:34 behind overall leader Chris Froome, with his hopes of a high finish in the general classification having been destroyed during a disastrous day for him and his team on last Friday’s 13th stage. Then, Costa and his Movistar team leader Alejandro Valverde became cut off from their GC rivals after the latter suffered a broken back wheel when another rider fell into him in the feeding zone during the ride from Tours to Saint-Amand-Montrond.
His Spanish team were left to focus on Nairo Quintana’s quest to win the white jersey for the best young rider and to push for the consolation of winning at least one stage, which they have now achieved.
“What can I say? It was magnificent,” said delighted Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzue. “It was probably the best day for him to get in there with the breakaway. He was comfortable until the climb, and then that is where he made the difference. Last week was very tough, because to see Alejandro lose his chances in the way he did was very tough,” he added.
“Rui lost his chances too, but the positive thing about him losing all the time he did was that it has given him a certain freedom to go on and try to win a stage, which he did today in such a fantastic manner.”