Last year João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was one of the revelations of the Giro d’Italia, leading the race for 15 days on his Grand Tour debut before finally succumbing to the pressure and the strain to drop to fourth overall in the final standings.
Heading into his second Giro, the 22-year-old is back and hungry for more, and he tells Cyclingnews that he is aiming for a place on the podium in Milan.
“The goal has been the Giro and hopefully I’ll be in my best shape for the race,” he said.
“In the UAE Tour, I was going well, and I was third, and then in Tirreno, I was sixth and the feelings were good. I had a bad day in the rain and made a mistake with my eating and lost quite a bit of time but I still had good form. In Catalunya, I was tired and fatigued but still managed to be with some of the best guys.”
Almeida has been in fine fettle this season with top-ten placings in all three stage races he has started in 2021.
He raced in Liège-Bastogne-Liège at the end of April before heading home to Portugal to see his family, ‘clear his head’ and prepare for the Giro d'Italia. There’s no doubting that the young all-rounder has his sights set firmly on improving his result from last year. Not even speculation over his future, perhaps away from Deceuninck-QuickStep look like knocking him off course or affecting his focus.
“Even in the off-season I’ve been in good shape but it’s getting better and better. I want to arrive in the Giro in my best shape ever," he told Cyclingnews.
"I work hard and the race programme has worked well so the goal is to finish on the podium. If I do a top ten I’d be happy but we always want more and more, so let's see how it goes."
The former U23 winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège is out of contract at the end of this season and has been courted by several teams over his signature.
UAE Team Emirates, Movistar, and Bora-hansgrohe have all been linked to the rider but he admits that nothing has been signed at this point and that his focus is on racing.
Cyclingnews understands that during negotiations teams were bidding in the region of €3 million a year for the rider.
“I have some good offers and it’s something that I’m still thinking about but my focus is on the Giro and my performance. We’ll see later how things go. There were many rumours with UAE and then Bora and Sagan, and Movistar. You know how it is but I’m not getting distracted. Nothing has been signed yet.”
Last October, Almeida arrived at the Giro with relatively low ambitions. He wanted to challenge himself over three weeks but having never raced for two weeks he went into the Grand Tour with an element of caution.
He finished second in the opening time trial in Palermo and then moved into the maglia rosa two days later. A superb performance meant his reign lasted until stage 18 to Laghi di Cancano, when he finally cracked on the Stelvio and dropped to fifth overall.
He rallied in the final time trial to move up a spot and he explained that he learned a huge amount about himself and three-week racing during that experience.
“I learned that you need a team strong enough to defend you and to control the race and that every detail matters and adds up in the third week,” he said.
“Until that point, I’d only done races up to ten days, so I knew that I’d be solid until that point. The goal was always to try and be with the best guys on the climbs and a GC place was an aim but I just didn’t want to have a bad day. It was still a surprise to have the jersey for 15 days.
"For a few moments I thought that I might be able to hold on but it was 15 days of podium duties, of controls and interviews, so I lost energy when compared to my rivals because my recovery was always behind. I think I lost all my time on the Stelvio stage because of that. It wasn’t a bad day, I just wasn’t as super like the others. But I was still really proud of my ride.”
The news of Almeida’s leadership role at the Giro has been somewhat overshadowed by the news that teammate and fellow sensation Remco Evenepoel will be using the Italian Grand Tour as his return to racing after fracturing his pelvis in a crash during last year’s Il Lombardia.
The Belgian was meant to make his Giro debut last year but heads to the race as somewhat of a wildcard having never raced over three weeks.
The media circus surrounding Evenepoel has certainly drawn some of the attention and focus off Almeida’s shoulders. He starts the race as Deceuninck-QuickStep’s designated leader but if those are roles are reversed for whatever reason, the 22-year-old would have no problems altering his position within the line-up.
“Remco’s shape is pretty good. We go to the Giro with me as the leader. He’s never done a Grand Tour before so he’s in the place I was last year but for sure I think that he can do a really good race and if he’s stronger than me then I’ll have pleasure in helping him get the best position possible. I’ve got one of the best teams possible and I think that’s really going to help me," Almeida said with no sense of rivalry.
“There are a lot of contenders this year, even more than last year. Simon Yates is looking really strong from the Tour of the Alps and then there’s Egan Bernal. There are so many guys you have to watch.”
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