In the end, the Stelvio did what the Stelvio usually does, and a different Giro d'Italia took shape on that interminable stairway of hairpins to the summit. Eleven kilometres from the top, with almost half of the mountain still to climb, it became apparent that the tappone would prove a step too far for João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
The Portuguese rider had led the race since Mount Etna and defended his maglia rosa resolutely at Piancavallo last weekend. His stirring lone effort there, as well as his confident display at Madonna di Campiglio on Wednesday, raised the prospect that Almeida might even hold on and win the Giro at his first attempt.
On stage 18, however, the rarefied atmosphere of the Stelvio dealt its dispassionate verdict. Almeida, like so many others, couldn't match the infernal tempo dictated in turn by Ineos Grenadiers and Team Sunweb. He would reach the finish at Laghi di Cancano almost five minutes down, dropping to fifth place overall, 2:16 behind new leader Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb).
Almeida was first dislodged from the group of favourites midway up the climb, though – as at Piancavallo – he refused to resign himself to his fate, battling his way back up to the coat-tails of the dwindling group of favourites.
He knew that if he wanted to beat Kelderman in Milan, he had to join him here. The Stelvio haunts a tired man, however, and Almeida was distanced definitively shortly afterwards. Within a few hundred metres, the virtual pink jersey had passed to Kelderman, who began the day 17 seconds down.
"My feelings were not that bad. I felt fatigue, which is normal, but the opponents were very strong," Almeida said afterwards. "I'm happy with my performance, it was solid. You can't be super every day, and today they were really strong."
Almeida had trained on the Stelvio before the Giro and expressed a liking for the climb. He had reason to feel even more at home there on Thursday afternoon, as his parents Dario and Patricia arrived on the race along with two of his early coaches, daubing his name in giant letters on the road.
By the time Almeida reached that point, he was almost four minutes down on the leading trio of Jai Hindley (Sunweb), Tao Geoghegan Hart and Rohan Dennis (Ineos Grenadiers), but at least for a moment, he allowed himself to savour the occasion rather than dwell on the imminent result.
"I like that climb, it's a beautiful climb, it's super hard," Almeida said when he paused at the mixed zone atop Laghi di Cancano, where a contingent from Portuguese television were also among the recent arrivals. "But I was just super happy because I had my family at the top, with some other Portuguese people. I even cried with emotion and I'm very thankful to them."
Giro d'Italia history, both recent and distant, is peppered with overall leaders who crumpled during the race's notorious final week, beaten by a combination of fatigue, altitude and the sheer weight of the maglia rosa. It would be unfair to place Almeida among their numbers. There was no collapse here, simply a managed decline. By day's end, he still had the composure and strength to climb Laghi di Cancano in the company of Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), crossing the line seventh on the stage, 4:51 behind Hindley.
"I was on the limit and I knew I could not go with that rhythm to the top of Stelvio," Almeida said. "After that, I just kept my rhythm in order not to lose too much time. In the end, I think I did a positive stage, you know. They were just super strong. I'm not at their level."
Wherever Almeida finishes this Giro – and it may well be in the top five overall – he will reach Milan with his confidence and reputation enhanced. The 22 year old was able to put his disappointment in context quickly atop Laghi di Cancano on Thursday afternoon, accepting that the Stelvio had spoken.
"I'm proud of what I did. I'm happy," Almeida said. "On the other hand, I lost the pink jersey. But the adversaries were stronger and there's nothing I could do."
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