"The Racer from the Crater"- Ned Boulting
Recently, I went on holiday to Madeira. I don’t really know why, but I did. Turns out it was rather a good idea.
Madeira exploded from the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean, a long time before anyone had ever got round to calling it the Atlantic Ocean: in fact, probably about a billion years ago, or something. The island which has given its name to a kind of sherry and a rather cloying cake is actually just giant lump of volcano, which pokes up from the water around it, its vertiginous cliffs affording stunning views of warmer climes to the South, and the West, where a warm sun sets with a nod to the Caribbean. To the North of the island, whose rigged igneous coastline, in January, is permanently in the shade, you can gaze out over the ocean breakers of the vast Atlantic, and marvel at the fact (which I surmised and then confirmed by means of an atlas) that, if you were to sail North from Madeira, your next landfall would be Iceland. It’s quite a remote place, really.
The island has been populated for almost exactly 600 years. It was discovered by some probably swarthy, seafaring, Portuguese types in 1419, who duly set about ruining it over the course of the next centuries; carving out (or rather, forcing African slaves to carve out) extraordinary irrigation canals known as levadas. These still exist today, winding their way across the vertical sides of Madeira’s compact but brutal mountains. Being canals, they are almost flat, since they are designed to allow water to drift slowly downhill. That makes them almost the only bit of Madeira which is anything like flat: a precious resource on an island, that, in its natural state doesn’t understand the meaning of the word. I have an old friend who has hilariously wrinkled ears. He has a theory that they got scrunched up in utero and that’s why the tops of his ears look like tiny, convoluted mountain ranges, with undulating valleys and long ridges. His lugholes are an endless source of fun. Madeira is a bit like my friend’s ears.
Needless to say, and because the topography is so brutal and unforgiving, road cycling is limited on Madeira. When I say ‘limited’, what I really mean is ‘virtually extinct’. Over the course of five days, I saw the grand total of two people on bikes. One of them was a farmer, possibly drunk, teetering gingerly through a village. But the only other rider I saw was rather different.
I spotted him from several hundred metres away, from the comfort of the driver’s seat of my hire car.
‘Look, a cyclist!’ I noted. ‘He looks pretty good, actually.’
The closer I got to the rider, who had a red light flashing from his seat post, since any journey along Madeiran roads involves disappearing into dark tunnels (there are over 150 on the island), the more professional he looked. When I was nearly alongside him, I realised that he was wearing a full UAE Team Emirates kit; jersey, shorts, socks, the lot. Then I noticed the rainbow bands on his sleeves.
‘That’s bloody Rui Costa!’ I bellowed, much to my companion’s discomfort. Minutes later, I’d flagged the greatest Portuguese rider of his generation down, and shaking him warmly by the hand, had embarked with vigour on a half-baked but effusive conversation using a combination of my non-existent Portuguese, and his semi-non-existent English. I gleaned from our chat that the 2013 World Road Race Champion was only in Madeira because of his wife, who, he explained to me by means of pointing at his wedding ring, is from the island. He winters there, before heading for his seasonal debut at the Tour of Valencia in February. We shook hands again, and he rode off, grinning.
A lonely road, I thought, as I watched that little red light disappear into a steep tunnel built into the cliff. But damn good training roads, I would imagine, if climbing is your thing, which it most certainly is, for Rui Costa.
He’s a curious rider, really: one of those world class climbers who never really cut it as GC racers, at least not over the three weeks of a Grand Tour. But he’s a sublime tactician, and a wily brain, and thrives in one day races, or in breakaways on the longer stage races. He invariably gets the best out of most of the situations he puts himself in. And I was glad to have made his fleeting acquaintance; it doesn’t take much really, to understand that he is simply another human trying to make things work for them, and follow their path towards happiness…
Anyway, back in London, I have delved into the Road Book to confirm what I suspected, that 2018 hadn’t really been his year. On page 690, Cillian’s review of UAE’s year’s racing doesn’t mention him. Dan Martin and Alexander Kristoff are picked out for the star treatment in a mildly underwhelming outfit, not Rui Costa. His best day’s racing was recorded by Jeremy Whittle’s report of stage four of the Tour de Romandie, on page 180. Jeremy describes Sky’s Bernal firing off a big attack on the final climb, only to be joined by Primoz Roglic, and eventually by Richie Porte, Jakob Fuglsang and, my new pal, Rui Costa. He finished fourth behind Fuglsang, in the end, two seconds better than Richie Porte. But he didn’t race the Tour de France, nor either of the other two Grand Tours. He didn’t even race the Tour de Suisse, which he won three years in a row not so long ago. So it wasn’t vintage Rui Costa in 2018, though he managed 10th in the World Championships.
But, one thing’s for sure. In 2019 I’ll be playing closer attention to the fortunes of the lone rider, grinding up some of the steepest roads I have ever seen, and forever circling Europe’s western-most volcano.