It was João Almeida, riding away from everyone, and nearly catching Dan Martin for the stage victory.
The top performance from the Portuguese star nudged him back into the top-10 overall and sees him poised for more with the final-day time trial looming in Milano.
Also read: No Hollywood ending for Remco Evenepoel
That Almeida’s breakout ride came on the same day that Remco Evenepoel crashed, and later abandoned the Giro overnight, only served to kick the hornet’s nest of debate: did Deceuninck-Quick-Step back the wrong horse?
Some have wondered how far Almeida could have gone in this Giro if he wasn’t working for Evenepoel, especially on key stages like the gravel odyssey and Monte Zoncolan in week two, when the Portuguese rider helped pace Evenepoel to the line.
Could Almeida have been higher up on the GC if he’d been free to ride for himself during the entire Giro?
Maybe, and the Belgians have a very expressive way to answer that kind of question, but in today’s culturally sensitive environment, we will just say we will never know.
Also read: Remco’s reckoning on the gravel roads
The question, however, presents an interesting intellectual exercise, as well as reflects the emerging gravitational pull around “Planet Evenepoel” and his growing weight in Belgian cycling.
Before entering the debate, it’s worth noting that the team started the Giro supporting both Evenepoel and Almeida, who posted a dream debut in 2020 with two weeks in pink and fourth overall. The latter made it an easy choice for everyone inside the team bus when he lost more than 4 minutes to the GC favorites in stage 4.
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) May 27, 2021
No one realistically expected Evenepoel to win this Giro. And the team made that plain before the Giro even started. When Almeida lost time early, and Evenepoel was banging on the door of the pink jersey, the decision was an easy one.
When a Belgian team sees the most promising Belgian grand tour rider since Eddy Merckx pedal within seconds of the pink jersey in the first week of their grand tour debut, no one should be surprised the team called Almeida up to pull for Evenepoel on the gravel roads of Tuscany.
Almeida certainly wasn’t.
Evenepoel dipped to seventh after Montalcino, but he survived a critical mountain test at Monte Zoncolan — again with help from Almeida — to ride into the final week of the Giro hovering in the top-10.
For Evenepoel, who had not raced since his dramatic crash in August into a ravine at Il Lombardia, every day was a victory.
It wasn’t until Wednesday when Evenepoel toppled over a guardrail while avoiding crashing riders in front of him, that Almeida was freed from his Remco shackles.
Unleashed, the Portuguese pressed his advantage, and almost came away with a stage victory.
Some arm-chair sport directors are saying that the team was backing the wrong horse and that Deceuninck-Quick-Step should have let Almeida have a free ride at Montalcino and Monte Zoncolan.
True, Almeida might be a few higher rungs in the GC, but his ride Wednesday might be also a direct result of him not presenting a direct GC threat to his rivals and that he was fresher in the legs (and mind) after shepherding Evenepoel around for two weeks.
As one of the stronger time trialists remaining in the top 10, if Almeida brings the same legs he packed Wednesday to the final two climbing stages, and then finishes it off in Milano, he could punch into the top-5 overall.
Team politics inevitably come into play in how and whom teams choose to back.
It’s no secret that Almeida is expected to leave Deceuninck-Quick-Step at the end of the season, most likely to UAE-Team Emirates. The team deserves kudos for bringing Almeida to the Giro and letting him race. Some team managers are notorious for sitting-out riders from important races when they know a rider is changing teams.
Almeida is no fool, either. By helping Evenepoel now, he not only helps himself during this Giro but also going forward. In cycling’s musical chairs, Almeida could well end up at Quick-Step again. There’s no need to burn any bridges, especially if a rider bleeds nearly five minutes in the first mountain stage.
And then there’s Evenepoel.
Of course, the team is going to help him in every pedal stroke of his career.
Team boss Patrick Lefevere knows that with the budding Belgian superstar he not only secured the future of his squad — both Evenepoel and longtime partner Quick-Step are locked in with five-year deals — he can perhaps do something no Belgian manager has done since the 1970s; win a grand tour.
Belgians love cycling, yet Belgians don’t win many grand tours. In fact, the last one was Lucien Van Impe and the 1976 Tour de France.
Since then, there have been a few close calls and top-10’s in the ensuing decades, but as Belgian riders continue to shine in the classics, breakaways, sprints, and the occasional one-week stage race, no one’s come close to showing much promise in grand tours.
And then comes along Evenepoel, a rider overflowing with talent, ambition, and confidence.
In Evenepoel, Lefevere long last has the rider he’s been dreaming of since the 1990s.
Lefevere, who isn’t shy about throwing darts to some of his critics, shot back at anyone doubting the team’s tactics or its backing of Evenepoel.
for those who only criticize and never achieved anything themselves pic.twitter.com/gMXnpzKeCn
— Patrick Lefevere (@PatLefevere) May 22, 2021
So, of course, the team is going to back him, from here and perhaps all the way until the end of Evenepoel’s career.
The Evenepoel-Almeida leadership issue kicked up some debate among fans, but there was never any doubt inside the Deceuninck-Quick-Step bus about who was going to be the boss of this Giro.
Now that the boss is gone, the under-study will see his chance. Simple as that.