He's still here. João Almeida defended the maglia rosa for a 10th successive day and extended his overall lead to 40 seconds when he sprinted to second place on stage 13 of the Giro d'Italia in Monselice. A week from the planned finish in Milan – or sooner, if circumstances have it so – the Deceuninck-Quickstep neo-professional looked increasingly comfortable in the role of Grand Tour leader.
Friday's finale saw Almeida competing on familiar terrain in the Colli Euganei south of Padua. Like the poet Ugo Foscolo, he spent a formative period in these hills, riding a season in the colours of local outfit Unieuro Trevigiani in his first year out of the junior ranks in 2017.
Almeida could recite the last stanzas of this stage by heart, and he coped deftly with a closing couplet of hills, Roccolo and Calaone, that reduced the maglia rosa group to just 20 riders in the final hour of racing.
"The last 30k, I knew well, I'd raced here. They were familiar roads. It was important to know the roads and corners and the small hills," said Almeida, who again had teammates James Knox, Mikkel Honoré and Fausto Masnada for company on the run-in.
That trio worked to tee up the pink jersey for the stage win, and though Almeida was beaten to the line by Diego Ulissi (UAE Team Emirates), he had the consolation of picking up six bonus seconds to extend his buffer over Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb). "We would have loved to win, but one guy was faster on the line," he said.
Time trial ahead
The 22-year-old Almeida was due to ride this Giro in the service of another youngster, Remco Evenepoel, but he was elevated to the role of leader when the Belgian was ruled absent following his heavy crash at Il Lombardia. Deceuninck-QuickStep's plans for this race have thus been repurposed around Almeida. The intelligence Evenepoel gathered on a reconnaissance of Saturday's Valdobbiadene time trial, for instance, has been directed Almeida's way.
"I spoke with Remco before, but my sports directors here have also seen the TT," said Almeida. "I'll ride it myself tomorrow morning, because it's really important to do everything we can."
While Almeida seized the maglia rosa atop Mount Etna on stage 3, much of his overall lead was hewn in the opening time trial in Palermo, when he placed second behind the unassailable Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers). Vincenzo Nibai's coach Paolo Slongo pointed out that Almeida's prowess against the watch was the great unknown ahead of Saturday's time trial, and the maglia rosa admitted that he was unsure himself of how he would fare on the 34.1km route from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene.
"I have never done a such a long time trial, so it will be new for me," Almeida said. "If I'm on a good day, maybe I can keep the jersey or maybe increase the gap a little bit. If I have a bad day, for sure I'm going to lose time on the GC contenders. Tomorrow we'll see how the legs are. For sure, we will give everything."
When Almeida first took the jersey in Sicily, his accession into the race lead was treated as a footnote to Geraint Thomas' (Ineos Grenadiers) crash and subsequent abandon. Since then, the uncertainty over the impact of the coronavirus on the running of the Giro has often overshadowed the race itself.
It is clear, however, that the Portuguese youngster's direct rivals are increasingly wary of him as a potential overall winner, regardless of when the race stops. On three days littered with possible pitfalls this week - at Tortoreto Lido, Cesenatico and Monselice - Almeida has defended his lead with a minimum of fuss.
"For sure, I keep the lead every day so maybe they're starting to think I can keep it until the end," Almeida said. "Tomorrow will be the 11th day with the jersey, it will be special to start in the pink skinsuit. I can't wait to start. And also, I'm starting in last position, so it will be interesting."
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