Right up until Saturday, João Almeida’s notable achievements in his first year as a pro have almost always been overshadowed by another young rider’s standout moments - but on Monday, in the Giro d’Italia, the Deceuninck-QuickStep pro has stepped into the limelight with a vengeance.
Second in Saturday’s time trial in Palermo, then 11th on the summit finish in Etna despite having lost a handful of seconds to the main favourites, Almeida, 22, could claim Portugal’s first maglia rosa in 31 years.
Given his remarkably consistent results throughout this season in all manner of stage races and one-day events, his claim on pink is clearly no fluke and may prove tougher to dislodge than the pre-race GC contenders might like.
“I more or less knew the time gaps and then after Geraint [Thomas] was dropped I was worried about Simon Yates, he’s a very punchy attacker,” Almeida told reporters.
“But then he was dropped as well and in the last three or four kilometres, despite the wind making it so difficult, I decided to see what I could do.”
Almeida was touted as an outsider for the overall classification in the Giro d’Italia, and promoted into the Italian Grand Tour leader’s spot at Deceuninck-QuickStep after Remco Evenepoel crashed out of the 2020 season at Il Lombardia. Almeida's second place in the opening time trial only heightened his dark horse status for the Giro.
But just as the phenomenal ride by Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) left Almeida waiting for his moment of recognition on Saturday, throughout the season, it’s been a similar story for the young Portuguese racer.
His third place in the Vuelta a Burgos was largely overshadowed by Evenepoel’s blazing triumph in the Spanish five-day race, as was his best young rider’s classification win in an exceptionally hard fought Tour de l’Ain between Jumbo-Visma and Ineos a few weeks later. Another new name, Astana’s Alexandre Vlasov, claimed the victory in the Giro dell'Emilia and Almeida was left out of the main frame again in second place.
At the Giro d’Italia, when it might have been useful for Almeida to remain anonymous for a little longer while the main favourites attacked each other, with a maglia rosa on his back, he will no longer be able to fly under the radar.
“I can’t describe what I feel right now, it’s like it’s a dream come true. I will try and defend this lead, even if a stage win would be great as well," he said.
“After Remco’s crash, the team came to this Giro as a wolf-pack, so we’ll go for the wins in the mountains as well and do our best wherever we can.”
Almeida will be hoping he can lead the Giro d’Italia for longer than the only previous Portuguese holder of the maglia rosa, Acacio da Silva.
Da Silva was arguably best known as Sean Kelly’s key domestiques but had his own moment of fame when he won on the Mount Etna in 1989 and wore the leader’s jersey for one day before losing it in a team time trial.
But with time bonuses on offer and stage winner Jonathan Caicedo (EF Pro Cycling) tied on time, the Ecuadorian is one definite rival on Tuesday’s stage 4 in Sicily. Then on stage 5's first category ascent of the Valico Monte Securo, the other rivals, the closest Pello Bilbao (Bahrain McLaren) 37 seconds back, seem certain to attack as well.
“I knew about Acacio was the only Portuguese rider to wear this jersey, I think,” Almeida said - although Jose Azevedo, the former US Postal rider and Katusha director came close in 2001 when he was lying second overall for four days in the first week - “but I've always liked the Giro, too, and I’ll see what I can do.”
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