Two years ago was the first time that the Giro d’Italia witnessed to what could well be one of João Almeida’s most impressive qualities as a racer.
When Almeida took the Giro d’Italia lead on Mount Etna in 2020, it was barely a footnote to the collapse of Geraint Thomas' general classification bid after the Ineos Grenadier rider crashed in a freak accident in the neutral roll-out. After 13 days in the race leader's jersey, Almeida was taken far more seriously as a contender. But on the Piancavallo mountaintop finish, Team Sunweb (now DSM) turned up the heat so high they dropped Almeida.
Adeus João, [Goodbye João] was what many people thought about the Portuguese racer’s chance of staying in the lead after he started to struggle. But how wrong we were.
Instead, he dug deep and held on in a spectacular solo pursuit and, his confidence increased and his reputation enhanced, managed to remain in the maglia rosa. It was, he said afterwards, his toughest 40-minute effort ever in the mountains, but it was worth it.
This year, Almeida put in a similarly spectacular defending action on the Blockhaus stage after Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) went up the road close to the summit with Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) and Romain Bardet (Team DSM). The UAE Team Emirates rider again dug deep and almost single-handedly dragged the group of chasers back to the trio of escapees, and once again, was back in the game. Almeida now sits quietly in third overall after 11 stages and is just 12 seconds behind overall leader Juan Pedro López (Trek-Segafredo).
Knowing how to resist so well and so long when under extreme pressure is one of Almeida’s main qualities as a racer, according to UAE Team Emirates Manager Joxean Fernández Matxin. Now overseeing the Portuguese rider’s Giro bid, Matxin was a key factor in Almeida’s rise through the ranks ever since he helped him join an Italian third division squad, Unieuro Trevignano based in Padua, in 2017 when Almeida was barely out of the ranks of the juniors.
“He didn’t have a good day on the Blockhaus, even in the morning when I was having breakfast with him in the hotel, he’d said he didn’t feel great,” Matxin told Cyclingnews. “And in the team meeting on the bus we talked about being aggressive on the Blockhaus, and he said he didn’t feel up to it.
“But apart from being so tenacious, he knew how to turn the race around in his favour on such a difficult day, and that’s because he knows how to suffer and hang on when things are looking really tough. In those areas, tenacity and knowing how to suffer - I strongly believe he’s one of the best riders in the world right now.
“He’s just a fighter, he never gives up,” says Portuguese teammate Rui Oliveira, who’s been with Almeida ever since the two raced at Axel Merckx's prestigious amateur team, Hagens Berman Axeon.
“The other ones go up the road but he never panics, he keeps his effort and his tempo going and he knows where he can get in the end. Like we saw on the Blockhaus. It was impressive, the way he came back and joined the guys ahead on GC. And that’s the main thing.”
It’s worth noting that back in 2020, Almeida was heading a Giro defined by total uncertainty, yet kept a cool head all the same. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country and riders and teams had to abandon in droves, nobody had a clue whether the Giro would reach Milan.
Yet as Cyclingnews correspondent on the race that year, Barry Ryan, wrote at the time, Almeida let none of that bother him: ”It is clear, however, that the Portuguese youngster's direct rivals are increasingly wary of him as a potential overall winner, regardless of when the race stops. On three days littered with possible pitfalls this week ... Almeida has defended his lead with a minimum of fuss.”
Almeida eventually lost the lead and his dreams of becoming Portugal’s first podium finisher in the Giro d'Italia, settling for fourth. But if that was a remarkable result for a rookie pro, he followed that up with sixth last year, confirming that 2020 was no fluke.
“Ever since a young age he’s already been growing and growing as a racer, and at Axeon he was already up there in some of the big races like the U23 Liège that he won. That was a surprise but also an affirmation of what he could do," Oliveira told Cyclingnews.
"Then after turning pro and going to QuickStep he made a step forward and now at UAE he’s confirming one of the best of the world.”
Blessed with an almost uncanny degree of calmness when racing, Oliveira says that off the bike Almeida is equally unflappable, but possesses a quiet sense of fun as well. In that, he says, there are certain parallels with a certain Slovenian teammate.
“When you see him off the bike and off-camera, he’s always the same, very calm. But he's always joking and talking about not-cycling stuff, too.
“Apart from always thanking his teammates, he’s a very good leader because he never gets stressed out. He’s kind of like Tadej [Pogačar], they are both similarly calm characters, and that’s something very typical of modern-day champions."
At the moment, Almeida is keeping his cool and lying third overall, just a handful of seconds behind race leader López. Fernández Matxin argued that is an ideal position for now.
“We don’t need to control the race, and at the same time, we’re ahead of almost all the other favourites. But right now it’s all about seconds, and given what we’ve got in the days to come and in the third week, in particular, we can’t be sleeping on our laurels. By the finish, these time gaps will be measured in minutes.”
Although Almeida himself has said the podium is the goal, Fernandez Matxin is not ruling out any specific placing or result, but neither is he ruling it in.
“This team has winning races as part of its DNA, that’s what we’re always thinking about, so let’s take it stage by stage. Thinking about what we can do in 10 days is like reading a crystal ball and I’m no fortune teller.”
Using the surreal events on the winner’s podium after stage 10 to reinforce his argument, Matxin points out that, “Accidents and misfortune can happen when you least expect it in any sphere of life, right down to a champagne bottle cork landing in your eye.”
It's notable that in the Giro d'Italia, UAE Team Emirates are one of the few GC squads, together with Team DSM, to have brought a sprinter, Fernando Gaviria. DSM’s decision has netted them a victory on Wednesday with Alberto Dainese, and Gaviria has been in the mix without actual success so far. But having a fast man in their line-up is a different strategy from how UAE Team Emirates race the Tour de France, where they have obvious major GC options but no sprinter in the ranks.
Matxin argues that with “six to eight stages that can end in a sprint in this year's race”, their decision to bring Gaviria to the Giro makes sense. Plus, in the Tour, they are defending a two-time winner's bid to take a third, of course. Gaviria “has won stages in the Giro, we have to give him his chance, and both Max Richeze and Fernando are very good at working to defend a GC leader in stages with potential echelons and so on, too. Both of them know how and when to stop to help Almeida if it’s necessary, they know that the GC is the overriding priority.”
As for the 2022 Giro route, Almeida’s time trialling has always been a point in his favour, right back to when in the Giro he took second in the 2020 opening time trial in Palermo. But what’s perhaps been more noticeable this year - and this may be crucial in such a mountainous Giro - is how he’s improved in the mountains. In 2021, Almeida lost the Volta a Catalunya’s overall lead as soon as it headed into the Pyrenees. This year in Catalunya he finished third overall.
In a race where the third week is as brutally difficult as ever, Fernandez Matxin says, even if the final time trial is a point in Almeida’s favour, it’s his climbing which is going to be under most scrutiny. And so far this year, as Catalunya showed and Blockhaus confirmed that the omens are very good indeed.
“He’s got a lot better in the mountains. He’s on the way up, the numbers show that. He’s still great on the time trials, but the fact he won at 2,100 metres of altitude against riders who are living at altitude all year round is another good sign. That shows he’s able to adapt well to altitude because races at over 2,000 metres rarely produce all-out attacks, people get tired much quicker. So he can be very proud of that. He passed two big exams with flying colours that day.”
The other big change of course is that since 2021, Almeida has moved on from QuickStep to a very different kind of team at UAE Team Emirates. But although stage racing has been one key element of success in the Middle Eastern squad, in recent years there have been some massive one-day wins in Il Lombardia, Liège-Bastogne-Liege and Strade Bianche, not to mention a near-miss at Flanders, and Fernandez Matxin denies that the team is as focussed on Grand Tours as it might seem.
“We like being the best team in the world in all sorts of races, sprints as well as the stage races. And here we have riders that can cover Almeida in all sorts of circumstances. When it comes to how much we believe in him, if we’ve signed a contract with him for five years, and he’s signed it with us, there’s clearly a great deal of mutual trust there, too.”
A rider who, he says, has offered to sacrifice his chances for Pogačar when necessary but also for uphill sprinters like Diego Ulissi in the first stage of the Giro d’Italia this year, Fernandez Matxin reads off an almost endless list of the Portuguese rider’s qualities as a pro and as a person. But back home in Portugal, too, there is a great deal of expectation and faith in what he could achieve, too.
“[José] Azevedo, Acacio da Silva, Joaquim Agostinho, we’ve always had these big names in the past and now we’re kind of getting up there again with João," said Oliveira.
"For us, getting a podium with João would already be something great, that’s what we’re aiming for and we will try our best to make it happen and make history for Portugal.”
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