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Almeida determined to push for overall victory in Volta a Catalunya

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
João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) in the best young rider jersey after stage 4 of Volta a Catalunya (Image credit: Sprint Cycling Agency)

This time a year ago in the Volta a Catalunya, João Almeida was ruing the loss of the leader’s jersey after Ineos Grenadiers ripped the race apart on the two main mountain stages.

In the lead after the day two time trial in 2021, Almeida dropped to third on the first mountain stage to Valter 2000, won by Adam Yates, then seventh, his final position overall, on stage three at  Port Ainé.

This time round, though, Almeida is with UAE Team Emirates and has shown a very different kind of performance in the mountains, outsprinting climbing stars of the calibre of Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) and Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) for the stage win.

The lead, though, remains just out of the Portuguese racer’s grasp, with Quintana edging ahead of him on points. But despite the three stages remaining being far from mountainous, Almeida told reporters afterwards he’s confident he can try for the overall win.

“Of course, everything is possible right until the end and we’ll do our best,” Almeida said. “I’ve been in this kind of situation before, and even if the stages that come are not so hard, I’ll be trying all the way through to the end.”

Perhaps unwilling to show what his strategy might be in such a finely-balanced competition for the overall, Almeida refused to be drawn on which of the three remaining stages, from Friday’s long grind down to the coast to Saturday’s tough grind through the sierras of southern Catalunya and then on to Sunday’s relentless series of steep little laps through Montjuic Park.

“You can’t say for now, a lot will depend on the weather, a lot will depend on the kind of luck you have, crashes and so on. But if everybody is OK, that’s the most important thing,” Almeida said.

Still, as things stand Almeida looks to be poised for what could be his biggest result since an unexpectedly prolonged defence of the Giro d’Italia lead in 2020 as well as a final fourth place overall.

And while he crashed early on stage 4, hurting his hand, the accident certainly proved to be no obstacle to laying down a searingly-sustained acceleration in the closing kilometres of Boí Taül, as well as finally claiming a much-sought-for first win for his new squad, UAE Team Emirates.

“It’s not been easy to change everything,” Almeida said referring to his team switch. “But I’ve worked hard and this is the best result I’ve had. I was very keen to get my first result. I think we’ve lived up to expectations, so I’m very pleased with it.”

In all the logical fuss about his teammate Tadej Pogačar winning the UAE Tour, Almeida’s fourth place at Jebel Hafeet’s summit finish went largely unnoticed, but it did signify a definitive step up in his year-on-year climbing performances. So, too, did a fifth place on the Col de Turini.

“I tried to do a little attack, and then I knew the last corner of the stage was very important, I had to try to get in there in first place. Nairo was ahead of me, but we did manage to get through the end.”

In a day where collectively UAE Team Emirates had shone brightly, Almeida pointed to the day long break with Marc Soler then the early move on the Boí Taüll as indicating just how many options the Middle Eastern squad had on the stage. 

“Then [Juan] Ayuso was up there, too, but finally I decided to go for it myself and that went very well,” Almeida said. “Overall the team did brilliantly.”

How the final three days of the Volta a Catalunya will play out, with Quintana defending an impossibly narrow lead and Higuita only just behind, is extremely hard to predict. But while as diplomatic as ever when asked about the differences between this team and his previous squad, Almeida recognised that at UAE Team Emirates, personally, he was fast improving all round.

“I’m getting the same level of support as I had before, but for me for sure the right thing was to make a change,” he reflected.

“I’m getting better than I was, I’m way stronger than before. So this is the right way forward.” 

And a year on from his mountain defeats at the 2021 Volta a Catalunya, the evidence is there for all to see.

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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.