The Rainbow Blessing

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Rui Costa could be a fine world champion

Recently FMK blogged about the alleged Rainbow Curse, as viewed through a new book, and pretty much confirmed its nonexistence. Good thing, because we have a World Champion now who probably shouldn't be viewed through that prism of silliness. Here's an argument why Rui Costa could, barring the usual randomness, be the best world champion since the pre-EPO days.

There's been some ongoing chat about the qualities of recent Rainbow Warriors in the post-race thread, but I think making the case for Costa requires a bit more deliberation. First, here are the last 22 champions:

1991 Stuttgart
Gianni Bugno (ITA)
1992 Benidorm
Gianni Bugno (ITA)
1993 Oslo
Lance Armstrong (USA)
1994 Agrigento
Luc Leblanc (FRA)
1995 Duitama
Abraham Olano (ESP)
1996 Lugano
Johan Museeuw (BEL)
1997 San Sebastián
Laurent Brochard (FRA)
1998 Valkenburg
Oscar Camenzind (SUI)
1999 Verona
Óscar Freire (ESP)
2000 Plouay
Romāns Vainšteins (LAT)
2001 Lisbon
Óscar Freire (ESP)
2002 Zolder/Hasselt
Mario Cipollini (ITA)
2003 Hamilton
Igor Astarloa (ESP)
2004 Verona
Óscar Freire (ESP)
2005 Madrid
Tom Boonen (BEL)
2006 Salzburg
Paolo Bettini (ITA)
2007 Stuttgart
Paolo Bettini (ITA)
2008 Varese
Alessandro Ballan (ITA)
2009 Mendrisio
Cadel Evans (AUS)
2010 Geelong
Thor Hushovd (NOR)
2011 Copenhagen
Mark Cavendish (GBR)
2012 Valkenburg
Philippe Gilbert (BEL)

I somewhat randomly cut off 1990 champion Rudy Dhaenens, and in 1989 Greg LeMond won, the last time a recognized champion of the Tour de France held the world title. Prior to LeMond, the Rainbow jersey tended to land on the shoulders of really awesome riders.

I think you can throw out just about every name from the heaviest era of doping. Prior to Oscar Freire's win(s) almost everyone on this list was either convicted or suspected of cheating. Gianni Bugno is the one guy I'd like to keep around for comparison's sake. More on that in a moment. Anyway, a handful of the riders on this list -- Freire, Cipollini, Boonen, Hushovd and Cavendish can fairly be called sprinters, and as such these riders were expected to rack up some wins in the Rainbow kit. Freire did a decent job of it; Boonen won Flanders along 19 other starts in 2006; Cav was Cav, more or less, and Hushovd rescued his Rainbow campaign with two memorable Tour stage wins. So yeah, sprinters in the Worlds kit generally uphold their responsibilities.

Bettini, Ballan and Gilbert can fairly be called classics guys, and as a group the classics guys have done poorly in the Worlds kit -- except when they're also sprinters, and even in Hushovd's case the quality of his Rainbow defense is debatable. Funny, none of these guys was considered unworthy. Ballan was a surprise but he did have a Tour of Flanders in his pocket by then. Gilbert was a mega-star, or had been until joining BMC, so he, like Bettini, arguably suffered from winning the worlds after passing his peak [Bettini, definitely yes; Gilbert, time will tell]. Still, classics guys being classics guys translates directly into fallow seasons. Plenty of one-day specialists end up in Rainbow since it's a one-day race, but as we all know, the capriciousness of the classics is enough to lay low the greatest champions.

Evans and Bugno, to me, are the two most relevant guys when contemplating Rui Costa. Yes, Bugno has a couple black marks against him for stimulants (caffeine, amphetamines), so you can take his accomplishments with a grain of salt. But like Costa, Bugno could ride a variety of different events. He won a Giro d'Italia and finished on the podium of the Tour de France two times. He could climb decently and rock a time trial. The classics were where he made his greatest mark, thanks to his intelligence and mix of skills, and only Bettini has won back-to-back rainbows since Bugno pulled the trick in 1992.

Evans could be described in similar terms, except that he focused more of his energy on winning the Tour de France. I wasn't paying much attention during Bugno's prime years, but it appears that he was a factor in three Tours before Indurain seized complete control. About as much of Bugno's attention was devoted to the Giro, as befits an Italian champion. By comparison, Evans rode the Giro seriously three times, only returning after his 2002 breakthrough in 2010 and 2013. The former, Evans bagged third as his new BMC team tried to bolster its case for a Tour de France wildcard; and this year Evans' Giro effort implied that he was beginning to hedge against the waning days of his Tour career.

But though the plan in 2010 paid off with Evans' awesome Tour victory in 2011, his World Championship probably better defines Evans' skillset: climbing, cleverness and dogged determination. The latter has long served him well in time trials. The former have won Evans his world title, a Fleche Wallonne, and a host of stages of the Tour, Giro, Dauphine, Romandie, etc. The whole package has gained Evans a nice parcel of stage race victories -- Romandie, Criterium International, and Tirreno-Adriatico, to name a few.

Rui Costa's skillset resembles those of both Evans and Bugno pretty well, and the significance of this is that well-rounded stage racers usually win stuff. Evans' Rainbow defense wasn't his best year, but in hindsight that had more to do with his team racing Pro Conti; all doubts about Evans were erased a year later. Bugno was solid in his first Rainbow defense, finishing on the Tour podium and winning in places like Emilia and Lazio, and after a down year in 1993 he won the '94 Tour of Flanders. Rainbow doesn't translate directly to success, but these guys did well enough.

Costa is putting the wraps on his second straight highly successful campaign -- 12th in CQ last year/16th in the Podium Cafe rankings, followed by 7th / 8th this year. Like Evans, he's bagged some one-week wins -- two consecutive Tours de Suisse -- along with Tour de France stage wins and other very strong results. He's shown the all-round ability (including time trialling) to be a stage race leader as well as a one-day threat. These qualities should translate well from one year to the next. More so than cobbled classics prowess, that's for sure.

The obstacles in his way include the usual fickleness of fate, plus a change of team and country that may require some adjustment. Of course, the team change should allow Costa to name his race objectives, with captaincy to follow (outside of the GIro, perhaps). So opportunities will be there. But so too will the pressure that can only come with wearing a rainbow bull's eye on your back. Costa freely admitted that he won Sunday in part because he knew Nibali was under far more public pressure to pull than the relatively overlooked soon-to-be World Champion. That advantage is now out the window. But whether this is a problem is another matter: Costa specifically signed a one-year deal at Lampre to avoid taking the pressure off. Perhaps his mentality is even stronger than it appears.

I know Costa comes with a murky affair around a supplement and his palmares aren't as glittering as any of the 1980s champions, but compared to the guys we've seen the last 20 years, apart from Evans and Bugno, my bet is he winds up one of the better Rainbow Warriors of the era.

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