Just as the script anticipated, a Giro d’Italia debutant from Deceuninck-QuickStep extends his lead in the Valdobbiadene time trial and suddenly it looks like he could even go on and win the whole thing. The part was written for Remco Evenepoel but, whatever happens from here to Milan, João Almeida has demonstrated himself to be far more than simply an understudy.
The signs were already there through Almeida’s neo-professional season, even if it was hard for anyone to draw attention away from Evenepoel’s raucous performances as the leading man. All the while, however, Almeida was quietly hitting his lines. He placed 9th behind Evenepoel at the Volta ao Algarve in February, third behind him at the Vuelta a Burgos, 7th at the Tour de l’Ain.
After the curtain came down on Evenepoel’s season at Il Lombardia in August, Almeida was nudged gradually into the limelight. He placed second at the Giro dell’Emilia four days later, then third at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali. At the Giro, a strong opening time trial in Palermo put him in position to inherit the maglia rosa from Filippo Ganna atop Mount Etna on stage 3, and a repeat performance amid the vineyards north of Conegliano has now set him up to try to carry pink to Milan.
On Friday evening, Almeida confessed that he had never raced such a long time trial and, despite his qualities as a rouleur, nobody seemed entirely sure of what he might achieve on stage 14. Most reckoned he might keep the jersey, but few anticipated that he would end the day with a lead of over two minutes on everyone bar second-placed Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb).
After taking 6th on the stage, 1:31 behind Ganna, Almeida now has an advantage of 56 seconds over Kelderman, 2:11 over Pello Bilbao (Bahrain McLaren) and some 2:30 over Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), while Jakob Fulgsang (Astana) is over four minutes back.
“I actually won more time than I expected,” Almeida admitted on Saturday evening in Valdobbiadene. “I was expecting to lose time to Kelderman, and also with Nibali I was expecting it to be close. But in the end, I could gain time and that is very positive for me.”
Saturday’s time trial featured the stiff climb of Ca’ del Poggio after 7km, and Almeida had the 4th best time at that point. He fell back slightly at the next two time checks before finishing strongly on the run-in to Valdobbiadene. It was, he said simply, all part of a preordained strategy.
“I had a plan, I did the plan, and, in the end, it paid off,” Almeida said. “The easiest part to gain time is on a climb, for sure, so I pushed harder on the climbs and tried to rest a little bit on the descents. In the middle, I was struggling a little bit, but I wasn’t afraid to do a little less there and then go stronger at the end. It was my longest time trial, so I didn’t have a lot of experience with this.”
Almeida has mastered his longest time trial, but he is still only two-thirds of the way through his longest race. Like Brandon McNulty, now 4th overall, racing for a 14th consecutive day is a new experience – “My longest race was, I think, the Baby Giro, so ten days in a row,” Almeida said – the Portuguese rider appears to be warming to the sheer distance of this event.
On Sunday, Almeida faces another robust examination when the Giro tackles three mountain passes en route to the tough summit finish at Piancavallo. Although the youngster rode with assurance to move into pink at Etna, he was unable to match the accelerations in the final kilometre at Roccaraso. For better or for worse, however, neither stage was an equivalent test to the one he faces on Sunday and beyond.
“I felt good today,” Almeida said. “I think everyone is a bit tired. Tomorrow is a big day, but then there’s a rest day and I can rest the mind a little bit, which is the most important for me. This is my first Grand Tour. We learn a little bit every day, and we’ll see how I react in the last week.”
The Giro’s recent history is punctuated by men who took the pink jersey early and then paid for their efforts in the final days of the race. The precise composition of the third week here is not entirely certain – it’s still unclear if an understudy will be required to replace the Stelvio, for instance – but Almeida shrugged off the idea that he had expended too much energy in chasing bonus seconds during his long tenure in the maglia rosa.
“Every bit of energy counts, but I’m not afraid,” he said when asked to revisit the sprint that netted him second place in Monselice on Friday. “If I had attacked alone in the final yesterday, that might have cost something, but I don’t think a sprint will make such a big difference. I think everyone had to spend energy. I’m not afraid to do anything. I’ll keep doing my race.”