One step at a time: Teenage phenom Adrien Costa looks to build on breakthrough season

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After his impressive debut season last year with Axeon Hagens Berman, Adrien Costa returned to his family’s home in Oregon and did what any cyclist with the energy and enthusiasm of youth would do. He went for mountain-bike rides and ate home cooked meals.

Costa, 19, also continued his business studies at Oregon State University four days a week. He pondered his second season with Axeon Hagens Berman, and his move back to Europe.

In 2016, teammate Will Barta was his roommate. This year, Costa departed for France where he bunkered down for training and a European-based early season itinerary from his own apartment in Nice. Fluent in the language (his parents are French), Costa was eager for the move.

“I’m trying to settle down this year; I’m trying to sort of make it a home for the long term,” he recalled during a recent interview at his team’s training camp in Calabasas, California. “I was lucky to spend lots of time there when I was younger. For me, it’s second nature to live there. I really enjoy it. I love the people. I love the culture and everything that comes along with it. I’m pretty lucky.”

Costa has raced since his pre-teen youth. Junior national titles, as well as regional wins, attracted plenty of attention. But last season he was thrust directly into the spotlight. He became the first American to win the Tour of Bretagne, after a Stage 4 solo breakaway win. Three months after recovering from illness, he finished second overall to Lachlan Morton at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah in early August. While anticipating a support role for a teammate, Costa emerged in the break on Stage 1 and moved into second with a runner-up finish on Stage 3.

Costa showcased his climbing strength against Grand Tour veteran Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac), who finished third overall. He also rode away from Giro d’Italia and Tour de Suisse stage winner Darwin Atapuma on the descent to the finish in Park City. Embraced by family, a photographer’s image showed Costa’s face freeze-framed in excitement and surprise.

“You’re talking about an interesting time of the year for because I had a pretty rough time in June,” Costa said. “After being in Europe all spring, I was pretty tired, not only physically, but mentally.”

The fatigue intensified, morphed into a lingering intestinal virus during U23 Paris-Roubaix, and Costa was sidelined for about a month. He returned to the U.S. to compete at the U23 road nationals, placing third in the time trial.

“I didn’t go into Utah with any personal ambition,” said Costa, who three weeks later won the Stage 4 time trial at the Tour de l’Avenir, finishing third overall. “I was just looking to help the team a lot, to learn and to be useful. But I got in the break on the first day. I just wanted to get in a good strong ride. I ended up really surprising myself with my form throughout the week. It goes to show what a little bit of down time at home can do for the head and for the body. It felt pretty surreal. But at the of the day, it was just a result. It doesn’t mean that much.”

Costa’s strong season continued the discussion of the rider’s potential at the WorldTour level and participation in Grand Tours. He rode as a stagiaire for Etixx-QuickStep at the end of last season — further learning, but not as planned. He fell in a solo crash in Stage 2 of the Tour of Britain and suffered deep abdomen and elbow cuts requiring a hospital visit. And the WorldTour interest didn’t end there; Costa spent time riding with Trek-Segafredo at a pre-season camp in Spain.

“At this stage, you just have to focus on being good at everything,” said Costa. “If you want to be a good Grand Tour rider you have to be able to do it all. You have to be able to ride in the rain, ride on the cobbles, ride downhill, ride uphill, and you have to be able to be in position before the climb.

Axel Merckx, who will direct Costa as one of the eight returning members of the squad, wasn’t fully surprised by Costa’s performance at Utah.

“Adrien was a known talent from the junior ranks,” said Merckx. “But you keep learning. Cycling is not a perfect science; circumstances change all the time. Your competition is changing all the time, just like the weather and the terrain. When you’re younger, any experience helps. Your body has to become stronger. It’s not one Tour of California or one Tour of Utah result. It’s 15 or 20 of those races. You have to be strong enough to survive.”

Adrian Costa (Axeon Hagens Berman), second overall and best young rider at the 2016 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Photo: Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.

Costa concurred. He’s heard plenty of talk about potential. But he knows he’s only 19 years old, with his early career success a confidence boost heading into a very steep learning curve.

“There’s no rider in cycling who can just have one skill set, no matter what you do,” he said. “When you’re young, you have to expose yourself to as many situations as you can and learn as much as you can from everyone around you. It’s a little too early for me to start thinking in that ways, but a few years down the road I can do my first Grand Tour and discover that and see how my body reacts. It’s going to be interesting to see myself transform into that kind of rider.

“But Axel definitely lets us do our thing,” he continued. “We never go into a race with a specific leader or all in for one guy or one strategy. It’s all really open. It sets a good dynamic where the team kind of figures it out. As a director, he just has so much experience, not only from his career, but also as a young rider, I don’t think there’s any tougher way to grow up than to have Eddy Merckx as your dad, and especially being Belgian. I think he understands as young riders, we need to find a balance and how we need to take it one step at a time.”

About the author

James Raia has reported on cycling for more than 30 years and is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. In addition to writing about cycling and other sports, he contributes business and lifestyle content to several publications, and has been the editor and publisher of the automotive website since 2004. James lives with his wife Gretchen and two cats in Sacramento, California.

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