Different but the same: for all this is the third time João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) eyes the general classification in this year’s Giro d’Italia, and it, nonetheless, represents ground-breaking terrain for the 23-year-old Portuguese racer.
That’s because for the first time in his career, Almeida will be leading a squad that is entirely focussed on his own GC chances. That’s very different to 2020 and 2021 when QuickStep either had more than one kind of objective, such as racing for Colombian sprinter Alvaro Hodeg two years ago, or more than one leader, as was the case in 2021 when Almeida was overshadowed, in the eyes of the Belgian media at least, by his teammate Remco Evenepoel.
Fast forward 12 months and a change of squad, Almeida is in a very different place altogether by leading the UAE Team Emirates squad into battle at the Giro as one of the top favourites alongside Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco).
Did he feel more liberated or more pressure, Almeida was asked at the pre-race press conference.
“I don’t feel more pressure,” Almeida answered, with his typical calm attitude when handling the media on display. “I work pretty hard to be here in my best shape.
“I don’t really want to compare [his current team with QuickStep-AlphaVinyl]. I can talk about now, though, and I’m confident my teammates are all here with one goal. Some teams have more than one leader, but we have one card to play.”
That said, he was at pains to point out that if there was a moment when breakaways were a serious option that did not threaten his own chances, he would not be slow at letting his teammates know that they could strike out in their own right.
“If there are some stages where some guys can take an opportunity, and if they can have it, I’ll be the first guy to give it to them,” he concluded.
Year on year, he insisted, there have been other changes, too, such as having a new trainer and a new time trial bike. “I think my physical condition is better overall, I’ve kept evolving. Hopefully, I’m stronger than before and I can be stronger in the mountains.”
As for the new bike, he claimed it has shown “good numbers in the wind tunnel, so that’s already an advantage. I’m looking forward to testing it on the road.”
The question of how Almeida is going to tackle the first of the two time trials, one of his specialities, is a moot one. On the one hand there’s the attraction of having a spell in the pink jersey in the opening weekend, which would be no bad thing both as a statement to his rivals and as a confirmation of his own form.
“It’s exciting but it would maybe be a bit too early,” he said, ever one to look at things objectively, saw both pros and contras. “But the TT is quite short, too. [Mathieu] van der Poel is a good example of a possible contender for this kind of effort.
“I’m going to give it everything in the TT and if I gain some time or take the jersey, then that’s a good sign.”
However, Almeida recognised that even if he is widely tipped to succeed in the Giro, there are others who are even higher up that hierarchy.
“Richard [Carapaz] is the number one favourite, after all the Grand Tours he’s done, winning the Giro as well. I’m still a young boy here,” he said, “and this is only my third Grand Tour. So I will keep a special eye on him.”
He recognised, too, that the way Carapaz had wrenched the Volta a a Catalunya lead from him with a long-distance attack this march had taught him a lesson or three about the Ecuadorian’s capacity for being unpredictable.
“I could see that day just how strong, mentally, he is,” Almeida said on Wednesday. “He had no fear, that day, nothing, going out from so far. It was a great ride by him that day.”
Almeida’s GC battle in UAE Team Emirates, though, is also linked to that of a certain Tadej Pogačar. Both as a teammate and a Grand Tour winner, Pogačar is clearly a source of reference, and perhaps a source of advice too. But if so, a rider as guarded as Almeida was not to be drawn on any specifics.
“We’ve done some training camps together, we’ve had lots of time to talk, and sometimes Grand Tours and cycling came up in the conversation,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about the legs. If you can be strong, you can follow. If not you’ll be dropped.”
As for defining what a successful Giro would be, Almeida was equally conservative, not naming a top five placing as a possibility. Instead, he insisted that his own evaluation, not a result on a sheet, was the one that mattered the most.
“If I don’t crash, don’t get sick, keep healthy and finish in the front, that’s a good Giro” he said. “Of course, I’d like to win a stage and stay up front, then that’s the goal. If we fail, we fail. But the point is to keep trying.”
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