Rui Costa may start 2013 Tour as a water-carrier, but where will he finish?

Is the lieutenant stronger than the captain? We'll see when Suisse champ Costa and Valverde tackle the Tour together

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Rui Costa’s second consecutive victory at the Tour de Suisse confirms what everyone within the Movistar organization already knows.

The 26-year-old Portuguese rider is nowhere close to reaching his potential, and Movistar brass is poised to give him more freedom in this year’s Tour de France.

“Now it’s time to think about the Tour. My only goal for the moment is getting through the first week, always so dangerous — we’ll see how we do when it’s over,” Costa said Sunday. “We’ll be one of the strongest teams in the race and we’re really excited.”

Officially, the Spanish-backed team is lining up behind Alejandro Valverde and his all-out push for the Tour podium. The 33-year-old “green bullet” believes this will be his best shot — and perhaps his last one — at reaching the Tour podium.

On paper, however, Costa’s impressive win at the nine-day Swiss tour proves the team is much deeper. While most teams rally around one or perhaps two GC options for the Tour, Movistar will bring a three-pronged attack that could prove the most explosive in the race.

Riding alongside Valverde as super-domestiques will be Costa and Nairo Quintana, winner of the Tour of the Basque Country. Though Valverde is ostensibly the captain, all three have potential to turn the race upside down.

Both Costa and Quintana say they are dedicated to helping Valverde, but each will bring strong personal ambitions that could prove complicated to control for pre-race favorites Team Sky.

Movistar could well be the Tour’s dark horse, with three riders capable of going on the attack in the mountains. The opening days in particular favor Movistar’s frenetic racing style. Hilly, classics-style courses on Corsica and the stage-4 team time trial back on the French mainland, in Nice, could well see a Movistar rider in the yellow jersey.

Movistar has improved dramatically in team time trials, proven by their win to open last year’s Vuelta a España and its second place in the Giro’s TTT in May, just nine seconds behind favored Sky.

With the Pyrénées first on tap in this year’s Tour, tens of thousands of Spanish fans will pour over the border to cheer on the team for the Tour’s first climbing stages. Froome and the other favorites will have to be vigilant to not let the race slip through their hands in the opening two weekends of racing.

No one will want to give either Costa or Quintana too much rope in the mountains, especially with Valverde shadowing the chase only to pounce in their wake.

That’s easier said than done, of course, and it all comes down to the legs on the day, but it would be a major mistake for anyone to overlook Movistar come July.

Behind Valverde, Quintana and Costa provide interesting options.

Quintana, who returned to South America after a highly successful European spring, will be making his highly anticipated Tour debut, so the team is trying to tap down his natural ambition.

The 23-year-old Colombian will have strong personal goals, including a possible stage win and a run at the young rider’s jersey. But above all, he promises to be dedicated to helping Valverde and learning the race.

The pint-sized “escarabajo” says he believes he could some day challenge for the yellow jersey, but he knows this year’s Tour is for Valverde.

“I want to be there to help Alejandro,” Quintana told VeloNews earlier this season. “I am excited about racing the Tour. Maybe some day I could hope to win, but this year, maybe we can make some attacks in the mountains.”

Costa, too, promises to dedicate himself to ride for Valverde. Already a proven stage winner at the Tour, having won out of a breakaway in 2011 ahead of Tejay van Garderen (now BMC Racing), Costa will also be looking to improve his career-best 18th at last year’s Tour.

Costa also likes to believe he could some day challenge for a grand tour. Speaking to VeloNews earlier this season, Costa said he hopes to continue to develop as a stage racer.

“I think the future for me in grand tours is promising,” he said. “Right now, it would be more realistic to aim for the Vuelta (a España) or the Giro (d’Italia), but why not the Tour, too, someday? Right now, we want to help Alejandro.”

The question now is where these three stand on form. Quintana hasn’t raced since Liège-Bastogne-Liège, so there’s no practical way to measure his current strength.

Valverde, meanwhile, was largely discreet at the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month. Besides a few tepid attacks in the mountains, he was steady yet unimpressive in the French race, riding to an abysmal 53rd in the time trial stage, yet still managing to scrape his way into seventh overall.

Of the three, Costa is clearly the strongest right now.

He rode a near-perfect, controlled race to claim two stages and the overall, winning the calendar’s “fourth grand tour” in impressive fashion.

Costa proved yet again he can climb and time trial well, skills that hint at his stage-race potential.

Sunday’s win, which came on a split time trial course, with the first part of the course held over mostly flat roads, demonstrated as much. Impressively enough, Costa punched in with a sixth-fastest split time on the flat sector, giving him a moment to switch from a TT setup to a traditional road bike. The tactic paid huge dividends and Costa snagged the stage win to finish off the double.

He took significant gains on some top Tour-bound riders, including 42 seconds on Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and 1:19 on podium contender van Garderen.

Costa already boasts solid racing acumen, with wins at the GP Montréal in 2011, the Four Days of Dunkirk in 2009, and the hilly Spanish semi-class Klasika Primavera in April on his palmares.

He was second in the 2008 Tour de l’Avenir (behind Jan Bakelants), but his promising career almost became unglued in 2010, when he tested positive for the stimulant methylhexanamine following his victory in the national time trial championship.

Costa was notified of his infraction that August following his participation in the Tour, during which he made headlines for a post-stage punch-up with now-retired, wheel-wielding Spaniard Carlos Barredo.

He was initially handed a one-year doping ban, but that was reduced to five months on appeal after he demonstrated the product came from what he claimed was a contaminated nutritional supplement. The ban ended on January 12, 2011.

Since then, Costa has been on a steady upward trajectory, telling VeloNews earlier this year, “I don’t know how far I can go.”

Being strong in the second week of June doesn’t count for much in late July, something that Valverde is certainly banking on.

It will be interesting to see whether Costa cedes to Valverde if he feels like he has the legs to go. While Quintana and Valverde have become fast friends, Costa might have a harder time hitting the brakes.

Movistar insists they’re starting with Valverde as their man in Corsica. It will be worth noting who will be their top-ranked rider by the time the Tour ends under the lights on the Champs-Élysées on July 21.


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