João Almeida heads to his debut Vuelta a España this weekend and is rightly considered among the overall favourites for glory in Spain. However, the Portuguese rider, who will lead UAE Team Emirates, has downplayed his chances ahead of the race.
The 24-year-old burst onto the scene two years ago with a Giro d'Italia bow that saw him in pink for two weeks before finishing fourth in Milan. This year he looked set for a repeat before COVID-19 took him out of the race just three days from the finish.
After making a comeback to race the Portuguese National Championships in June (he won the road race), Almeida only has the Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa and Vuelta a Burgos under his belt. He was runner-up in the latter but didn't sound fully confident on his Vuelta chances when speaking in a pre-race press conference on Wednesday.
"I'm going to try for the GC as much as I can," Almeida said. "I haven't had great or super legs. I don't want to have the expectation of a podium or something.
"I'm going to give everything I have, but I want to keep my feet on the ground."
Almeida noted that his form has taken a while to get back to where he wanted following his Giro abandon. He said that he hasn't felt his best in recent months, despite results suggesting he's in good form.
"I think it's already in the past," he said of the Giro. "I don't have symptoms, but I stopped for quite a good time, and form doesn't come that fast. I feel recovered physically and mentally.
"In the last months, I've not been feeling great or at my best. My preparation was not ideal, as I had wanted it to be. That's a part of cycling – you can't always feel good.
"I was still OK in Burgos so maybe I will surprise during the Vuelta."
Almeida rounded out Burgos with a victory on the final day, beating Astana Qazaqstan leader Miguel Angel López to victory on the summit finish at Lagunas de Neila.
The Colombian will be among Almeida's rivals for a top GC spot in the Vuelta, too, with other major names on the start list including three-time champion Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), Giro winner Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), and 2018 Vuelta winner Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco).
One ride who will soon hope to be racing among those names for similarly big prizes is Spaniard Juan Ayuso, who makes his Grand Tour debut this month in support of Almeida. The 19-year-old is the youngest Vuelta starter since 1980, and in his first full pro season has shown that he's surely a star in the making.
Highlights of Ayuso's 2022 campaign include a fifth at the Volta a Catalunya, fourth at the Tour de Romandie, and a win at last month's Circuito de Getxo. Despite those very promising results, though, he said he's only at this Vuelta to support and learn.
"Let's support him. I'm making my debut in a Grand Tour and I have to learn," Ayuso said of Almeida.
"I know there’s a big pressure, especially from Spanish people. I think I’m lucky my first grand tour is my home country. So really, I just want to learn and get prepared for the upcoming years.
"I know there's pressure, but I know how to handle it. For me, it’s not a problem."
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