João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) enjoyed the first rest day as leader of the Giro d’Italia, a rainy day away from racing that gave him time to reflect on his week in the maglia rosa and prepare for the week ahead and jersey defence.
The nine stages across Sicily and the south of Italy have eliminated some of the Giro d’Italia pre-race overall contenders, revealed the weakness of others and highlighted the 22-year-old Portuguese rider’s talents.
His superb performance in the opening Palermo time trial and then the mountain finish on Mount Etna put him in the pink jersey. He has defended it admirably, bettering Joaquim Agostinho’s five-day spell in the leader’s jersey at the 1976 Vuelta a España. He is making Portuguese cycling history and proving his own resilience.
Almeida is the latest success story and latest alumnus of Axel Merckx’s Hagens Berman Axeon development team. He is the 36th rider to graduate from the team to WorldTour level, a move he made after winning the 2018 Under 23 Liège–Bastogne–Liège and finishing third in the Under-23 Giro d’Italia.
Almeida kept the maglia rosa the first week as fellow alumni Alex Dowsett and Ruben Guerriero won stages in Vieste and then Roccaraso. Sadly, the US development team has still to secure its future and confirm it will continue in 2021.
"For sure a part of this jersey is thanks to them," Almeida said in praise of the Hagens Berman Axeon programme. "They passed on their knowledge and experience to me. You learn a lot there. Cycling is also about your mental strength and I think the team has a really good mentality."
On Sunday’s tough stage deep into the Abruzzo Apennines, Almeida lost 18 seconds to Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) but only four seconds to Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo). His lead on Kelderman, now his closest pursuer, has been squeezed to 30 seconds, but it is still a fairly significant time cushion for Almeida, allowing him to sleep easy and enjoy the rainy rest day.
From the Apennines, Almeida can see north and as far as the weekend to the Conegliano 34.1km time trial and Sunday’s mountain finish atop Piancavallo.
Before then, the Giro d’Italia follows the Adriatic coast for a finish in Tortoreto, another in Rimini and then the hilly Nove Colli stage on Marco Pantani’s training roads in the hills behind Cesenatico. A sprint stage crosses the Po delta to Monselice and the decisive stages of the north.
Almeida’s time trial ability gives him confidence, especially about predicting the outcome of the Conegliano time trial on Saturday. He finished second on a similar, if shorter, course during the 2018 Under-23 Giro, only beaten by Rob Stannard that day, and by Aleksandr Vlasov in the final general classification in what was a unique pursuit and time trial on the Ca’ del Poggio climb.
"I’m happy already," Almeida said when asked of his Giro so far during his rest day video conference with media. "It’s been a dream for me wearing this jersey and the team will do everything to keep the jersey and to win stage victories too.
"Can I win the Giro? I think it’s too early to ask that question. I think I can keep the pink jersey until Piancavallo. Then we’ll see that day if I have the legs."
The Giro d’Italia marks Almeida’s Grand Tour debut. He is talented but is aware of his limits.
"I don’t actually believe I can win the GC but I guess we’ll have to see," he said.
"I’ve never done three weeks and there are guys here with so much experience that could take the jersey if I have a bad day. We’ve seen it so many times, we saw it with Yates [in 2018], when Froome won. You have one bad day and everything goes. You never know, we'll have to see what happens on the very last day."
Almeida may be cautious about making predictions but he is not afraid to judge his big-name rivals based on what he has seen in the first nine days of the Giro d’Italia. His observations fit with what many have seen so far.
"In this first week, for sure Nibali is strong but I think Fuglsang and Kelderman are stronger," he said.
"For sure Nibali has more experienced than everyone else and I’m sure he’ll be strong in the third week as well. But anyone in the top 10 has a possibility to win, there are a lot of guys who can win this Giro."
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