João Almeida: I've got unfinished business with the Giro d’Italia

João Almeida of Portugal and UAE Team Emirates during a team presentation at the 2022 Vuelta a Burgos
João Almeida of UAE Team Emirates during a team presentation at the 2022 Vuelta a Burgos (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

On stage 17 of the 2022 Giro d’Italia, João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) did not know it, but when it came to GC aspirations in Italy’s Grand Tour that year, his number was already up.

For kilometre after kilometre on the lungburstingly-steep stack of hairpins and tunnels that comprises the Passo del Menador climb in the Dolomites, the plucky Portuguese racer had clung on grimly some 100 metres behind his top podium rivals - Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), eventual winner Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) - before losing more ground on the high plateau that followed and which led to that day’s finish.

But if Almeida was just a minute behind his rivals at the finish and still talking post-stage of trying for the podium after his second hard day of limiting the gaps, his body knew otherwise. 

At 3 a.m. in the early morning, Almeida woke with a bad fever. Multiple tests by the team diagnosed him with COVID-19. As a result, Almeida duly left the race as a DNS for stage 18. But curiously enough, one knock-on effect of that untimely departure was not necessarily a bad one, given it deepened the 24-year-old’s motivation to return to the Giro d’Italia in 2023 for what will be his fourth successive participation.

“I’ve got unfinished business with the Giro d’Italia,” Almeida told Cyclingnews during the off-season. “If I had done it normally, I’d maybe have gone to the Tour de France in 2023.

“But after the way it went, I want to do the Giro again, have a normal race with no setbacks and see what I can do.”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at the time, he says, he had no idea that COVID could be behind his under-the-weather feeling on stage 17, his first major setback of the race. As he puts it with refreshing candour, “it’s a Grand Tour so you have some shit days”.

“The last stage I rode I felt a bit weird, but some days in a Grand Tour, that just happens, we suffer more. Then at three or four in the morning, I woke up with a sore throat, temperature, in pain. Even it hadn’t been COVID, I couldn’t have started. But we did five or six tests and all of them came back positive anyway,” he said about nothing to be done.

“It was frustrating. I think I was up there, in a good position, and anything could happen in the last days, as we saw. But I’m young, so I can go back again. Situations like that, they’re part of the game.”

Almeida’s insistence on doing the racing equivalent of getting back into the saddle as soon as possible after a crash and going for the Giro d’Italia again coincides, happily enough for the Portuguese racer, with a route that suits him down to the ground. The 2023 Giro will have three time trials, a speciality where if not an out-and-out expert against the clock, he’s almost always performed better than the average GC contender, as his national TT champion’s title from 2021, the first win of his career, would suggest.

“Remco’s a better time triallist than me,” Almeida insists, referring to the standout Belgian champion, “but it’s a good route for me, a hard third week which I like. I’m excited.”

Learning the good and bad way

Volta Ciclista a Catalunya 2022 - 101st Edition - 4th stage La Seu d’Urgell - Boí Taüll 166,5 km - Joao Almeida (POR - UAE Team Emirates) - photo Luis Angel Gomez/SprintCyclingAgency©2022

Joao Almeida won stage 4, the toughest Pyrenean stage, at the 2022 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya  (Image credit: Sprint Cycling Agency)

2022 wasn’t all about setbacks, in any case, as Almeida took significant steps forward in other races. In the Volta a Catalunya, for example, Almeida had lost the overall lead in 2021 the moment the race hit the mountains. In 2022 he not only won the toughest Pyrenean stage, but also took the lead the next day from no less a climbing star than Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic).

Such a clear year-on-year change constituted a huge boost to his morale, he says, particularly as it was his first win with his new team last season, UAE Team Emirates. Nor was Catalunya all about learning from success: two days later, when Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Carapaz went on the rampage with a long-distance break and wrenched the lead away from him, Almeida admits that he made a major mistake by being far too far back when their move went, catching him by surprise.

“You win or you learn,” he says wryly. “I still did a good race, I got third overall. Of course, I could have maybe won, but I’m happy with that. We learn more when we lose." Then he qualifies that truism with a typically wry moment of humour, "Probably.”

Almeida can take added motivation from his second Grand Tour of the season, the Vuelta a España, too, which was the first time for him to do the double in his career. His condition not only visibly improved as the three weeks unfolded, finishing fifth overall in Spain, but he also tried some new moves as well. His series of memorable long-distance attacks some 100 kilometers from the line on stage 18’s ascent to el Piornal did not finally work out. But they were not only one of the few moments when after the untimely departure of Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), race leader Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) faced a serious attack in the third week. 

They also strongly suggested that while Almeida has already a well-developed style of ‘digging in’ on climbs and continuing at his own pace while others lose their head around him, he’s now not above throwing caution to the wind with longer-range attacks and seeing how far that gets him, too.

João Almeida of Portugal and UAE Team Emirates white best young jersey competes during the 105th Giro d'Italia 2022, Stage 17 a 168 km stage from Ponte di Legno to Lavarone 1161m

João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) in the white best young jersey during the 2022 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images)

A victory in the National Championships road race last June, alone and ahead of the field by almost a minute, and another in the Vuelta a Burgos when he outpowered no less a climber than Miguel Angel López on the race’s toughest ascent, also hinted that in many ways Almeida has yet to reach his sporting ceiling both on the climbs and, perhaps, in one-day racing too. As winning the Best Young Rider prize in Paris-Nice reminded us last season, he is still only 24.

Even as the wins came through last season, Almeida’s other new role in 2022 was that of acting as a guide to the younger generation, in this case, Juan Ayuso as the two battled for a top position on GC.

As the established contender, Almeida was able to shield the young Spaniard from handling excessive expectations. With Ayuso in third and Almeida fifth overall, the two-handed approach clearly worked out and may be repeated this autumn again in Spain.

 “I’m not that old, but I have some experience, and every time he needed some words of advice I could talk to him about my first Grand Tour. I was always there to tell him how things would probably go,” he says. “I like helping other riders, but if they’re from my team, even more so.” 

While taking on the role of a team mentor, though, it’s kind of ironic that Almeida has lost one himself. His veteran compatriot and former World Champion Rui Costa, part of UAE Team Emirates since it was Lampre way back in 2014, has finally opted to move on in 2023, to Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert. 

“For me personally it’s a loss. He’s a really nice guy with a lot of experience, I learned a lot with him and I think there was more that he could share with me in the future;” Almeida says.

“I would have liked him to stay with the team but that wasn’t possible. I just hope it works out for him in his new team, because he’s a nice guy and really deserves it.”

Taking on Remco and the rest

Almeida feels that in 2023, in any case, he’ll be starting from a much better point than in 2022, when he was the new kid on the block and still finding his way forward. “I know everyone from the team now, the coaches, the nutritionists, all the staff, so I don’t have to adapt to anything. I’m not nervous or afraid,” he points out. “Mentally it’s easier and I can focus on training and racing.”

After a possible start in Mallorca, his first stage race of the season will be on home terrain, in the Volta ao Algarve. And like so many other GC contenders, he’ll be using the Volta a Catalunya again, as a launch-pad for the three-week stages that follow. The Vuelta, too, may feature on his program again, although with teammate Tadej Pogačar still undecided if he will take part and Juan Ayuso definitely leading the team in the autumn in Spain, Almeida's role there is yet to be determined. And that’s if he goes.

“Normally I’d like to go back to the Vuelta, I liked the race this year [2022], the weather was good and this year I’d like to complete two Grand Tours. But it’s too soon to say.

"Ayuso is going, maybe Tadej, so if you are going to bring a strong team, normally you’d go for the strongest guy. And [in the Vuelta] that’d be Tadej.”

All of which indicates, of course, how much the 2023 season is going to pivot around Almeida’s fourth Giro d’Italia bid and putting the record straight in Italy after the setbacks of 2022. That he should be taking on Evenepoel, for whom he had to partially sacrifice his own chances in the 2021 Giro d’Italia when the two were teammates in QuickStep, will make how 2023 plays out for the Belgian and Portuguese racer even more of an intriguing challenge.

But more than taking on a particular rival, Almeida will be finding out what could have been in 2022 on the roads of Italy. And while in the process of laying the ghosts of that Grand Tour performance to rest, perhaps he'll be forging a much better one.

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.