João Almeida's spirited final six kilometres kept him in the maglia rosa at Piancavallo on Sunday, but the Portuguese rider must now try to repeat and amplify that effort across the final six stages of the Giro d'Italia. Easier said than done.
For the second rest day in succession, the 22-year-old sat down to a race leader's video conference broadcast from the Deceuninck-QuickStep bus. Like in Abruzzo a week ago, he downplayed his prospects of winning the Giro at his first attempt.
"No, I still don't believe it," Almeida said. "I'll just believe it if I start the last TT in a pink skinsuit. Then I might believe I can do it. But until then, everything is possible."
Almeida has now held the maglia rosa for 13 days on this Giro, but after steadily padding out his lead to 56 seconds over the course of the second week his advantage was slashed to 15 seconds over Wilco Kelderman thanks to Team Sunweb's show of force at Piancavallo.
Despite the reduced buffer, Almeida came away from the toughest stage so far with his reputation enhanced and his confidence bolstered. He weathered Sunweb's onslaught far better than more experienced men like Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). He then produced a remarkable solo pursuit on the upper portion of the climb to place fourth on the stage and ensure he would carry the pink jersey into the third week.
"It was tough, I was on my limit for the whole of the last 6k. The goal was just to lose as little as possible, to keep the jersey, but I was always on my limit," said Almeida, who admitted that he had surprised even himself. "Yesterday I was feeling really good, which was a surprise. I did my best 40-minute effort ever, so I think I can be proud of what I did yesterday."
Almeida's qualities as a time triallist and a climber were already apparent from his displays earlier in the year, but it was unclear if he would be able to stitch together a consistent level of performance across his maiden Grand Tour. Prior this Giro, he had never raced an event longer than 10 days, and one would expect even the most accomplished debutant to start fraying slightly by this point.
"My feeling yesterday was really good, but a rest day is always welcome, especially so I can rest mentally," said Almeida. "I'm expecting the third week to be very hard."
While Kelderman is within touching distance of Almeida's pink jersey as the third week begins, the rest of the contenders have been distanced to three minutes or more. Even if Almeida doesn't manage to fend off Kelderman for the next six days, a berth on the final podium in Milan would be a considerable consolation prize for a neo-professional.
"I think it's possible if I keep the consistency I've had so far, but a three-week race is something I've never done, so if I have a bad day or if I just feel flat, there isn't much I can do," Almeida said. "I guess I'll find out in the next days."
Unexpected leadership role at Giro
Remco Evenepoel had been the man designated to lead Deceuninck-QuickStep at this Giro d'Italia, but he was forced to miss the race after crashing heavily at Il Lombardia in August. The Belgian had been a dominant force across the calendar, both before and after the coronavirus lockdown, while Almeida had played a quietly impressive supporting role at events such as the Volta ao Algarve and Vuelta a Burgos.
That tandem was never intended to compete together at the Giro, however. Almeida had instead been earmarked to make his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España, which gets underway on Tuesday, but he was drafted into the Giro squad to offset the absence of Evenepoel. On Monday, he gently dismissed the idea that co-existence with another ambitious young stage racer would be problematic in the years ahead.
"Well, in a normal season, I wouldn't be doing the Giro, I'd be doing the Vuelta," Almeida said. "I was supposed to do the Vuelta, not the Giro, I'm just here because of all the bad crashes we had.
"But we don't know the future. I think I can be a helper as well. For sure, I would like to be a leader, but I don't have to be. I'm still young, I still have a lot to learn as well. Yeah, if I have the legs, I can be the number one, but I don't feel like I have to be the number one."
Before taking his leave from his Zoom call, meanwhile, Almeida was pitched one of the more left-field questions of this or any other Giro, when he was asked if he was drawing inspiration from Portuguese explorers like Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco Da Gama for his voyage into the unknown of the final week.
"For sure, it gives me some inspiration, but I don't think much about it," Almeida said politely, though he ended on a nautical theme all the same. "I just try to do the best I can and go as deep as possible."
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