Two years ago, when João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) took his first major step in a Grand Tour on the Mount Etna stage of the Giro d'Italia and claimed his first-ever maglia rosa at age 21, realistically there was no knowing how long his dream of staying in the pink jersey would last.
The answer was much longer than widely expected. After taking in the opening time trial at Palermo in the delayed Giro d'Italia edition of 2020, Almeida seamlessly moved up to first on Etna, where he placed 11th a little behind Wilco Kelderman and Vincenzo Nibali. The performance was impressive enough, but became even more so when he stubbornly remained in the lead for a further 14 days, finally finishing fourth overall.
Fast forward two years and Almeida returns to the Mount Etna ascent as one of the top favourites for this edition. But while insisting that "the priority is not to lose time" on Etna, Almeida also recognises that what was a dream outcome on Etna in 2020 remains a realistic, and attractive, possibility this time around, too.
"Last time was really good and I'm hoping for another good result," Almeida told Cyclingnews on the Giro's first rest day on Monday, "though for sure the others will attack."
"We'll see tomorrow [Wednesday] because the other contenders are strong, but it's never too soon to take the maglia."
Currently 11th overall, just 29 seconds down on race leader Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) the mildly spoken Almeida did not reveal what strategy he would opt for should he actually manage to regain the pink jersey. As he said the first goal is to defend what he has achieved so far.
"If we take it [the maglia] we're going to play our cards as well," was all he would say. "And we will see what we have in mind."
So far Almeida's performance in the Giro d'Italia has been steady but not earth shattering. There had been some hopes he might take the stage 2 time trial, where he placed in the middle of the main pack of contenders in eleventh place. And on the day 1 uphill finish at Visegrád, which some might have thought suited to his ability to maintain a sustained high pace on the steadier climbs, he was 14th.
As the race headed to Italy after the three stages around Budapest, Almeida was satisfied by what he had achieved in Hungary, saying in his low key fashion that "the first few stages were pretty good, I was happy with my performance."
But it's in Italy where the race will be won and lost, and Etna is where Almeida is hoping at the least to be up there with the other contenders. And if he can get more, then so much the better.
"I like Etna, my first visit there went pretty well," he said with a typically Portuguese type of understatement. "The priority is not to lose time but I can gain time, I'm going to do it."
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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 Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.
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