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by Michael Better
August 6, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
He sits down in the plush armchair, but instead of leaning back, he leans forward – elbows on the knees, hands clasped together. Tense, nervous, uneasy. All of the above fill the air. In the background two legends, Axel Merckx and Alain Gallopin, speak in French and he seems to have one ear to them.
Slowly the hands unclasp, the arms rise off the knees and he leans back. Soft-spoken words fill the air with the hint of a French accent. His demeanor is confident, but an afterthought to his intelligence that emerges. His talent is unquestionable and not up for much debate, but his mind is the trait. The facet that sets him apart from all the other young sensations.
Who is he? He is Adrien Costa. A light-post skinny 18-year-old French-American riding for one of the best development teams in the world, Axeon Hagens Berman.
“The earliest cycling memory I have is on a long hot summer afternoon just baking in my grandpa’s living room watching the Tour on TV and the race going through the Alps,” Costa said. “The race would end at 6pm or so, so I would have time to go for a quick little shred on my yellow mountain bike and just dream of being in the Tour. I wasn’t even 10 years old at that point.”
Both of Costa’s parents are French, thus he has dual citizenship. He still has family over in Europe and he speaks French fluently. The lanky climber’s strength on the bike is undeniable, but his passion, intelligence, maturity, and above all, his drive speaks volumes to the person he his and the man he is going to be.
“I did the first two years [of high school] full-on, but honestly I felt like it was holding me back and I wanted to do cycling full-time and just focus on my passion,” Costa said.
Skipping class, failing classes. That seems to be the route Costa went down, one might think, as he thought of becoming a professional athlete.
Costa worked overtime to get his high school diploma. He finished high school a year early and was able to spend three month of his final junior season in Europe racing with the U.S. national team. “I think that kind of reflects the person I am,” Costa explained. “When I have a goal or something I do, I work stubbornly to it. For me, not finishing high school was not an option,” Costa said.
Costa didn’t take the easy way out, but the hard one. The way out that helped to ensure a life beyond cycling, but demonstrated his mental strength and drive. However, he didn’t stop there. He may travel the world racing his bike and lived in Nice, France in the spring to train, but this fall he will be sitting in a college lecture hall like a normal college student. He explained he will be taking classes in person at Oregon State in Bend, where his family lives.
“I definitely like to have something going to keep the mind stimulated,” Costa said. “I think that’s really important and it helps your cycling as well. There are studies on it that show extra stimulation actually improves performance. Also, it brings a balance and a purpose to your life. I really value the complete package.”
Costa values his education, which in the professional cycling world is uncommon. In the early 2000s, the balancing act of schoolwork and 30-hour weeks in the saddle was nonexistent. Nowadays, it is still uncommon, but it is catching on. More and more riders are pursing a higher education while competing at a high level, and this doesn’t exclude the top-tier.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), a rider whom Costa looks up to and admires for his aggressive and race-with-heart tactics, is working towards his Master’s degree in Management Studies at the Grenoble Business School. “For me it’s inspiring that guys are able to do that and still be the best in the world,” Costa said. “I think it shows the new generation is motivated and also maybe it shows the sport is cleaner. It’s really motivating to see that it is possible to kind of do it all.”
Time and time again, Costa’s focus on education and knowledge is staggering. This translates to cycling and how he currently sees his position in the sport and how he is approaching it. “First of all, I think at this age it’s important to never limit yourself and learn to be competitive in as many different fields as you can,” Costa said. “That’s how you learn and get better as a cyclist. You see the Tour these days, they take them on cobblestones, they take them through the crosswinds, and on time trials and everything. You can’t just be this one-trick pony.”
Costa’s results speak for themselves in this case. He became the first American to win the overall title at the weeklong Tour de Bretagne, which he won this year. He is a two-time silver medalist in the junior individual time trial at the world championships, and rode to a remarkable seventh overall at the U23 De Ronde, the Tour of Flanders. He’s no one trick pony.
With that in mind, Costa did say climbing inspires him the most and stage racing is what he considers his specialty. He claimed the summit finish queen stage in Bretagne before going on to capture the overall. A peculiar thing happened at the weeklong French race though: the media grew an appreciation and love for Costa due to his French heritage and ability to speak the language fluently.
Adrien Costa (Axeon Hagens) climbing alongside Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) on stage three of the 2016 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.
In early 2017, Costa hopes to move to Nice and live there full-time, alongside American WorldTour riders like Ian Boswell (Team Sky), Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac), and Larry Warbasse (IAM). “Obviously, I will want to come home for races and to be with my family, but having a place there year-round, for me it’s the dream,” Costa said. “It’s a beautiful area, but it also gives you a place to call home there as well.
“I’ve spent lots of time there, so for me I like being in Europe and especially in France it’s easy. I enjoy the culture and I’m able to kind of be self-sufficient there and enjoy it, which is really nice.”
The California native has a history with Axeon Hagens Berman’s team owner, manager and most of all mentor, Axel Merckx. Costa asked Merckx for an autograph at the U.S. amateur national championships in 2009 in Bend, Oregon. “I had one of those yellow LiveStrong jerseys and in the parking lot after the U23 race I found him and he autographed my t-shirt and my brother’s t-shirt and we got a funny little picture,” Costa said.
“I didn’t ask to be on the team, but that was the dream. I remember following the U23 race all-day and dreaming of competing in that race and for the LiveStrong team, it’s just a whole other world. To be a part of that today is just incredible. To be able to have that perspective and look back and be like ‘oh I’ve come a long way’ is pretty cool.”
Merckx has developed a multitude of riders to the WorldTour level, but has also seen some not succeed. He’s got confidence in Costa. “He’s only 18 and just because he has some great results early on doesn’t mean he’s out,” Merckx said about him. “He still has to go through the years, not only on the bike, but off the bike too. He’s got time, but he’s got great talent obviously. He’s got great potential. I think he’s on the right path and I think he’s doing the right things.”
Costa has the physical attributes to go far, but cycling has a way of breaking the strongest of riders. The mental game is one that can be easily lost. It will be tough for cycling to break Costa, however; his head is on straight and while he loves the sport with a deep passion, he knows how to step away and turn off the athlete switch. A key attribute to powering through the years when the jump to the WorldTour comes and suddenly the victories and salutes to the sky seem to stop.
As with most young riders Costa dreams about the top level and his favorite races. But what is the one that creeps into the French-American’s dreams the most?
The Giro. He considers it the most passionate race in the world and the one that will test him the most, not only physically, but mentally as well.