For almost six hours, the Giro d’Italia raced up hill and down dale in the hinterland of Cesenatico, while winter seemed to descend in increasingly rapid instalments upon the coastal resort.
Summer was a distant memory, despite the festive pomp of the corsa rosa. On an afternoon of driving rain and plummeting temperatures, riders were almost willing the finish line to appear before them.
By the time they ended the stage by the Marco Pantani memorial, their teeth chattering from the cold, news was spreading of an attempt to bring the finish line of the entire Giro a whole week closer. EF Pro Cycling’s request to that end was swiftly rejected by the UCI, but uncertainty remains the keynote of this Giro.
Every rider, from Deceuninck-QuickStep’s maglia rosa João Almeida to maglia nera, Lotto-Soudal rider Jonathan Dibben, is competing in a race where the precise location of the finish line is decidedly ambiguous. It might be in Milan a week on Sunday – and that, certainly, is the intention of Giro director Mauro Vegni – or it could be in some undisclosed location along the way.
Two teams – Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo-Visma – left the Giro on Tuesday after having COVID-19 cases confirmed during rest day testing, while Thomas De Gendt said on Thursday morning that his Lotto Soudal team had debated pulling out of the race before the start of stage 12.
All the while, a bike race is taking place. Almeida, a neo-professional, has held the maglia rosa since the summit of Mount Etna on stage 3. The Portuguese youngster produced another assured defence of his tunic in miserable conditions on Thursday afternoon, aided by Fausto Masnada, Mikkel Honoré and James Knox in the face of a day made even harder by NTT Pro Cycling’s pacemaking.
He came home alongside his overall rivals and maintains his 34-second lead over Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb).
In his post-stage press conferences, however, nobody asks Almeida if he can carry the jersey to Milan. They simply ask him if he thinks the Giro will get to Milan.
“I think for now, it’s not very certain if the Giro goes until Milan or not,” Almeida said. “In the end, it’s not our decision, I think. at least, it doesn’t depend on me. I’ll just keep what I’m doing, and the team will keep doing what they’re doing. And if the Giro stops, the Giro stops. I think there is not much we can do. I don’t know what to say about it.”
Speaking to RAI television behind the podium half an hour earlier, Almeida had struck a similar tone, noting that the inclement weather also placed doubt on the full running of the mountain stages of the final week.
“The situation is not looking good. The weather is really bad and we’re not in the north yet. Imagine next week at almost 2,000m,” said Almeida.
“With the COVID-19 situation, I think we have to make the smartest decision for everyone. It’s not my decision. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing until we can. I’m the maglia rosa, so I can’t say: let’s stop.
“For sure, next week will be a hard week but it’s not my decision; that’s the organisation’s decision. We’re fighting for the jersey and we’ll see how it goes.”
Axeon Hagens Berman
In Cesenatico on Thursday afternoon, Almeida was preceded in the post-stage press conference by stage winner Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos), a fellow graduate of Axel Merckx’s Axeon Hagens Berman team. Other stage-winning alumni on this Giro include Alex Dowsett and Ruben Guerriero.
Merckx’s team is still seeking sponsorship to continue its activities in 2021, and Almeida, who spent two seasons with the team before joining Deceuninck-QuickStep this year, reiterated his previous support for the project.
“With the knowledge and your mindset, you learn everything in that team. They prepare you very well for the WorldTour,” Almeida said. “I feel like it was the right step for me to spend two years with that team. I hope they can find some sponsors for next year and keep doing what they’ve been doing for the last ten years.”
Almeida knows where it all started. Like everyone else on this Giro, he isn’t entirely sure where it will all finish.