The two seconds João Almeida gained on his rivals on the uphill finale at San Daniele del Friuli might not count for much by the time this Giro d'Italia reaches Milan, but his late attack was a show of defiance as the race enters its decisive final week.
At the finish line, a soigneur draped a jacket over Almeida's shoulders in the manner of Danny Ray throwing a cape over a collapsing James Brown, but the Portuguese rider looked far from spent as he made his way towards the podium to receive the maglia rosa for the fourteenth time. He's not ready to exit the stage just yet.
"I was feeling good," Almeida said when asked why he had attacked. "Sometimes the best defence is attacking and that's what I did today. I tried, why not? When it's steep like this, everyone's spent energy, so I think it was good."
Three laps of the finishing circuit over Monte di Ragogna didn't tempt any of the general classification contenders into action on stage 16, and they reached the finish more than 12 minutes down on the day's winner, Jan Tratnik (Bahrain-McLaren). On the final kick through the streets of San Daniele, however, Almeida decided to test his rivals' concentration as much as their strength with a crisp acceleration. "Sometimes the mind is more important," he said.
In the overall standings, Almeida is now 17 seconds ahead of Wilco Kelderman and 2:58 up on Jai Hindley, while two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali is 3:31 back. The hardest part of this Giro is still to come, however, beginning with Wednesday's demanding stage to Madonna di Campiglio by way of the Forcella Valbona and Monte Bondone.
Almeida acknowledged that the mammoth passes ahead would be very different to the short and sharp climb through San Daniele, though he rejected the idea that he had expended too much energy in pursuit of a relatively meagre reward on Tuesday.
"There isn't a big comparison between this and what we have in front of us. That was really short in the end, and explosive, but everybody had to spend energy, so I think in the end it was the same for everyone," said Almeida, who is racing a Grand Tour for the first time in his career. Since taking the maglia rosa atop Mount Etna two weeks ago, he has repeatedly stressed that he is still discovering his limits as a rider. The coming days in the high mountains will reveal more.
"I cannot have any more confidence than this, it's been crazy for me, really good, and I'm really thankful for my whole team. Let's see how far I can go. I'm confident but I'm ready for the worst. Anything can go wrong, I think."
There will be no respite for Almeida even if survives Wednesday's succession of mountain passes with the maglia rosa still on his back. He will have to do it all over again the following day on the Stelvio. Despite concerns over the conditions at the summit, Almeida expressed hope that the might ascent would remain on the Giro route.
"I did the Stelvio already two times in training, so I know it pretty well and I really like it. I hope it's possible to do it. It's really high altitude, so it's probably snowing there. I don't know if we're able to do it, but I hope so, because I really like the climb," said Almeida.
There is no guarantee, of course, that Almeida will still be in pink by that point. Speaking on RAI television, Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli wondered if his late attack was simply a final flourish before he bade farewell to the race lead, though he expressed admiration for his gumption.
"The acceleration today was one of a lad who doesn't want to give in but who knows it's going to be hard," Martinelli said. "He showed courage. He's 22 and he attacked in everyone's face with the maglia rosa on his back."
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