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João Almeida: Find a balance between racing and life or be done in four years

LUXEMBOURG LUXEMBOURG SEPTEMBER 18 Joo Almeida of Portugal and Team Deceuninck QuickStep yellow leader jersey prior to the 81st SkodaTour De Luxembourg 2021 Stage 5 a 1837km stage from Mersch to Luxembourg 323m skodatour skodatour on September 18 2021 in Luxembourg Luxembourg Photo by Bas CzerwinskiGetty Images
João Almeida lining up at the 2021 Tour of Luxembourg in the yellow jersey of the race leader (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

There have been transfers for a number of big-name riders for the 2022 season but few appear as significant, for rider and team, as João Almeida’s move from Deceuninck-QuickStep to UAE Team Emirates.

For the Portuguese Grand Tour and stage-race rider next year marks a new chapter in a career that has followed a steep and hugely successful upwards curve; one of apparent natural progression, fuelled by ambition but tempered by character and intelligence.

Almeida only turned 23 in August and has raced at WorldTour level for just two years but ended the 2021 season in ninth position on the UCI world ranking. ProCyclingStats placed him fifth in their revolving rankings.

He only won his first professional race in June, securing the Portuguese time trial title, but he then won two stages and the overall classification at the Tour de Pologne and the Tour de Luxembourg. He ended the season with second at the tough Giro dell’Emilia one-day race and third at the subsequent Milano-Torino which finishes at the Superga Basilica overlooking Turin.

Almeida spent 15 days in the maglia rosa at the 2020 Giro d’Italia last October and backed up that Grand Tour performance with another strong finish in this year’s Corsa Rosa with sixth overall.

He was already a target for a number of teams but UAE Team Emirates secured his services for 2022 and beyond, with the offer of a five-year deal prioritised over a higher salary. They believe he is a future Grand Tour winner and hope he can develop alongside Tadej Pogačar.

When speaking to Cyclingnews during an exclusive interview, Almeida’s class shines through. He is mature beyond his years and the influence of spending two very important formative years at Axel Merckx’s Hagens Berman Axeon team are clear to see.

“I think there’ve been some really good signs for my future in 2021. I’ve only done two Grand Tours but I was fourth in the 2020 Giro and then sixth this year. That’s not bad,” Almeida tells Cyclingnews with quiet but confident modesty.  

“I like to be consistent. To keep your focus in Grand Tours and during the season you need to be mentally and physically strong. If you lose that focus, even just for a week or so, it reflects on your results. I think I’m good at that and doing the right thing at the right time. I’ll always try to evolve and improve. I think I had a really good season, now I’m excited for the years to come.”

Of course, Almeida’s stage racing talents match his dedication. He is a good time trialist, can climb well, and has the consistency and temperament needed to survive and then emerge in a Grand Tour.

He broke through at WorldTour level at the 2020 Giro d’Italia but his early years indicate his future path. He won the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2018, multiple Portuguese national titles, and was second overall behind Aleksandr Vlasov at the 2018 Giro Baby, as well as being the best young rider. In 2019 he was also fourth overall at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.

With the help of Deceuninck-QuickStep, moving up to the WorldTour came naturally. He was second in the opening time trial in Palermo in the 2020 Giro d’Italia and pulled on the maglia rosa on the slopes of Mount Etna after stage 3. He kept it until stage 18, only cracking with fatigue on the slopes of the mighty Passo dello Stelvio, when Tao Geoghagan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), Team Sunweb's Jai Hindley, and Wilco Kelderman rode away from him.

Evenepoel's shift from teammate to rival

MONTALCINO ITALY MAY 19 Remco Evenepoel of Belgium and Team Deceuninck QuickStep white best young jersey Joao Almeida of Portugal and Team Deceuninck QuickStep during the 104th Giro dItalia 2021 Stage 12 a 162km stage from Perugia to Montalcino 554m Dust Gravel Strokes girodiitalia UCIworldtour Giro on May 19 2021 in Montalcino Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) leading the way for teammate Remco Evenepoel on the Montalcino stage of the Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

In 2021 Almeida returned to the Giro but his performance was initially overshadowed and impacted by the presence of Remco Evenepoel in the Deceuninck-QuickStep lineup.

Almeida was expected to wait for and work for the Belgian. That cost him two minutes to the likes of Bernal on the dirt roads to Montalcino but he never lost hope and fought back in the third week once Evenepoel faded. He climbed into the top 10 after the second week, was second behind Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) at Sega di Ala and second to Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) at Alpe di Mera, before moving up to sixth overall thanks to a strong final time trial in Milan.

His race could have been so different without the presence of Evenepoel but, in contrast to his now-former teammate, Almeida is not interested in polemics and public post-race analysis.  

“I look back at the Giro in a positive light because I felt good in the third week and was getting better and better. We had two plans in the Giro and we did just what we had to do,” he said, a long silence perhaps expressing more than his words.  

Cyclingnews pointed out that he and Evenepoel will be rivals in 2022.

"For sure that’ll be an advantage,” Almeida said, perhaps hinting at the fact that there would be no more waiting for the Belgian in stage races and Grand Tours in the years ahead.

“I think I know his strengths and his weaknesses. He doesn't have many weaknesses and that’s why he’s so hard to beat, so it’ll be interesting to race against each other. Let’s see what happens. Let the best rider win.”

“It’s fair to say that Remco’s more emotive than I am. When you’re as strong as he is, you just go full power. Maybe I’m not as strong yet, so I need to use my brain a little bit more and ride smarter to get a result. We’ll see what happens in the future with all of that.”

Five years at UAE Team Emirates beats big offers

With Deceuninck-QuickStep investing massively in Evenepoel, Julian Alaphilippe and its successful Classics roster, team manager Patrick Lefevere was unable to match the significant offers that Almeida received for 2022 back in the spring. UAE Team Emirates, Movistar, and Bora-Hansgrohe were all linked to a deal, with Cyclingnews reporting that several teams were offering close to €3 million to secure Almeida’s services.

Almeida’s agent João Correia, Corso Sports, played hardball with Lefevere, with the backing of football super-agent Jorge Mendes, who has made a foray into the world of cycling by working with several Portuguese riders.

The Belgian manager hit out in public about Almeida already having a deal in place elsewhere with much of the 2021 season still to race but he was forced to eat his words and even praised Almeida for his success and professionalism when he performed so well in the second half of the season.        

“Patrick always talks a lot via the media,” Almeida said, again weighing up every word carefully.  

“I don’t really read it all very much, I don’t engage with it and keep things to myself. I think I got good results. When I said goodbye to Deceuninck-QuickStep, the whole team, the soigneur, the mechanics, the directeur sportif and other riders, they were happy for me and wished me well. That’s why I rode for them right to the end of the season too.”

Not many riders choose to leave Deceuninck-QuickStep but it is another measure of Almeida’s talents and especially his Grand Tour potential.

“I felt good at Deceuninck-QuickStep but UAE Team Emirates made me a really good offer and the role of team leader for the Grand Tours and other stage races. I like the plan they’ve created for me to evolve,” Almeida explains.

“If I had to choose my future team just for the money I’d have gone elsewhere because I had bigger offers. UAE Team Emirates offered me a five-year contract and that underscores the confidence they have in me and the confidence I have in them. I can focus on riding my bike in the years to come and hopefully focus on winning."

A measured approach

ALPE DI MERA VALSESIA ITALY MAY 28 Joao Almeida of Portugal and Team Deceuninck QuickStep Egan Arley Bernal Gomez of Colombia and Team INEOS Grenadiers Pink Leader Jersey during the 104th Giro dItalia 2021 Stage 19 a 166km stage from Abbiategrasso to Alpe di Mera Valsesia 1531m Stage modified due to the tragic events on May the 23rd 2021 that involved the Mottarone Cableway UCIworldtour girodiitalia Giro on May 28 2021 in Alpe di Mera Valsesia Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) battles pink jersey Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) on stage 19 of 2021 Giro dItalia (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

UAE Team Emirates have still to confirm their 2022 goals but team manager Mauro Gianetti has already said Pogačar will again defend his Tour de France victory.  

Almeida is happy to again focus on the Giro d’Italia, miss the Tour de France and perhaps target other races.

“I’d say my goal for 2022 is the Giro and seeing what I can do there again,” he said, no doubt watching this week’s daily announcements of the Giro d’Italia route.

“I also want to do other stage races, one week stage races. I want to see what I can do and get all the results I can with the team around me.”

Almeida will join Pogačar as a Grand Tour leader at UAE Team Emirates. Also in the 2022 roster are Marc Soler, Rafał Majka, Brandon McNulty, George Bennett, and the hugely talented 19-year-old Spaniard Juan Ayuso. But for now, Pogačar and Almeida will share team leadership without stepping on each other's toes. Neither seem interested or have the temperament for intense, internal rivalries.    

“I think there’s enough space in UAE Team Emirates for both of us and indeed for other riders too," Almeida said, looking to the possibility that he and Pogačar could share and swap Grand Tour leadership in the years to come.

“I don’t want to always target the Giro in the years ahead and I’m sure we can find a solution for that. Maybe I can do one and Tadej can do the other. Perhaps we can both do a Grand Tour together, why not?

“I’m sure there’ll always be a good team plan and I’ll always follow that plan. I’m looking forward to racing with Tadej, who wouldn’t be? We can help each other a lot, rather than get in each other's way. I like to work for other riders too and to help them win. That excites me, I’m not just a leader with an ego.”  

Almeida gives the impression he has the talent and mentality to enjoy a long and successful career. He is part of a new prodigious generation that wins WorldTour races and challenges for Grand Tours while still in their early 20s. Yet he is also mature and balanced, and clearly in control of his own destiny.

He is quietly spoken but that only makes him more fascinating to talk with and to follow in the seasons to come. He is also keen to balance his Grand Tour ambitions, preferring to hold back and race one Grand Tour a year, rather than chase fame and fortune.

“You’ve got to find a balance between racing and life, otherwise you'll be done in four years,” Almeida said.

“I think it’s important to save your legs and save your brain too because it’ takes a lot of mental strength and mental energy to focus on the GC in two Grand Tours in the same season. I prefer to avoid going over the edge because I hope to have a long successful career."

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