"It’s time to be on the radar," is how GC favourite João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) defines his strategy for racing Sunday’s crunch stage in the Giro d’Italia. But the Portuguese racer, who led the Giro for 17 days in 2020, is currently playing down his options on wearing pink for good in 2022.
Almeida has had a low profile so far in this year’s Giro d’Italia, with an expected major impact on the opening TT failing to materialise. Equally despite a notably aggressive attitude pre-stage on the Etna, telling Cyclingnews, "It’s never too early to take the lead," when push came to shove, Almeida opted to stay with the main group for the entire ascent. And on Friday’s long ride through the mountains of the Basilicata, the 23-year-old cast an equally anonymous figure in the main peloton of GC favourites.
However, after the stage 8 circuit through Naples, Almeida remained in seventh place on GC and he recognised that on the Blockhaus on Sunday, the time for playing a waiting game would come to an end.
"It’s been pretty good so far, and I like to be under the radar," Almeida observed to a small group of reporters at the start of stage 8. "It’s nice. But Sunday is a big day and if you want to fight for the podium, it’s time to be on the radar. Let’s see if I can do it."
As for those whom he expects to be in the GC battle, Almeida pointed to four key rivals: "[Simon] Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), [Richard] Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), [Romain] Bardet (Team DSM), and [Mikel] Landa (Bahrain Victorious) all look very good. These are the ones who will fight for the Giro."
However, currently Almeida all but rules himself out of the fight for victory. "It’s going to be hard, there are so many good guys here, so a podium here would be like a victory for me. I think going for the victory is a bit too much for now."
Fourth in 2020 after his long spell in the lead, Almeida is not the sole card his team have to play in the Giro. Apart from breakaways with Davide Formolo like on stage 7 and unlike any of the other GC squads apart from DSM, UAE Team Emirates also have options in the bunch sprints with Fernando Gaviria and Max Richeze. But Almeida sees nothing but advantages in this.
"For me, it’s good for them to have a sprinter here, Fernando and Max are really good on the flat and then in the windy stages they can protect me too. They have so much experience in those areas," Almeida enthused. "Then in the big mountain stages, it’s not like there are that many guys in the finale, anyway."
The next challenge in any case, is anything but flat and Almeida is convinced, like all the other GC contenders, that it will be a real chance for the overall battle to unfold. But his own particular take is that on top of Blockhaus being an inherent climbing challenge, there are comparatively few chances in the stages immediately afterwards.
"For the next five days [after Blockhaus], it’s not going to be that hard and there aren’t so many chances. So on Sunday, I think you will see people attacking," he reasoned. As for whether he would be in their number, though, remains to be seen.
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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.