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Giro d'Italia

Giro di Hoody: How João Almeida can win the 2020 Giro d’Italia

Many expect the untested grand tour rookie to crack, but what happens if he doesn't?

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How impressive is 22-year-old João Almeida so far in this Giro d’Italia?

The Portuguese WorldTour rookie is racing in only his first grand tour, yet is riding with the coolness of a veteran a decade older. With Deceuninck-Quick-Step protecting his flanks, Almeida rode out of Friday’s sprinter’s stage looking pretty in pink.

A more pressing question is: How far can Almeida go in this Giro?

That’s going to be the big unknown as the Giro nears its halfway point.

There are a few hints to suggest that Almeida will soon run out of Giro gas, and eventually succumb to one of the wily, more experienced veterans like Vincenzo Nibali or Steven Kruijswijk, and ride into Milano proud of a few well-deserved days in pink.

Why are rivals expecting Almeida to eventually crack? There are a few reasons.

João Almeida pretty in pink at the 2020 Giro d'Italia
João Almeida is pretty in pink after seven stages at the 2020 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

First off, Almeida has never raced a race longer than 10 days. And of those longer, U23-styled races he’s done well in — the Tour de l’Avenir and the Baby Giro, both in 2018 — usually see shorter distances. In fact, coming into this year’s Giro, he’s only raced four days in distances longer than 200km so far in his career. This old-school Giro route is stacked up with longer stages that tip more than 200km. We’ve already had one, and there are seven more stages longer than 200km, including the Giro’s longest stage at 253km on stage 19, just before the decisive climbing stage on the Giro’s penultimate day that many believe will crown the overall winner.

It’s the accumulation of stress, fatigue, and kilometers that will inevitably start to wear on any young rider untested beyond the halfway point of a grand tour. Everyone knows it’s that hard final week and weight of consecutive days in the saddle that eventually break weaker riders and allow true grand tour-styled riders to come to the fore.

Can Almeida go the distance? Most expect he won’t.

There is a pathway, however, for Almeida to win this Giro. It’s unlikely, but in what’s been a very odd and wild COVID year, anything could happen.

How long will he keep pink? It’s an interesting question, made even more intriguing considering that the decisive mountain stages in northern Italy looked to be altered by weather. Organizers are already rerouting a few stages, and that’s on the assumption that foul weather won’t block the roads, prompting further changes or perhaps even outright cancelation.

Riders like Nibali and Kruijswijk, not to mention the other GC contenders, need to eliminate Almeida sooner than later.

Everyone is looking to Sunday’s four-climb, 208km stage to Roccaraso as a big test. If Almeida defends pink, that means he carries into the second half of the Giro with two time trials waiting in his corner. Monday’s first rest day comes ahead of a week of transition stages that, at least on paper, favor sprinters and breakaways. There’s nothing, on paper, that would suggest a well-protected, a well-recovered Almeida cannot endure.

Barring a crash, a bad day, or getting caught in an ambush, Almeida could carry pink all the way into next weekend, and the 34.1km individual time trial on stage 14. In Palermo, only world time trial champion Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) was faster. Almeida took a minute out of Nibali and others. On this rolling course, Almeida could expect to take similar gains, perhaps even more considering it’s more than double the distance in Palermo.

That would give Almeida an ample head start going into next Sunday’s stage 15 summit finale at Piancavallo. If Almeida is holding a lead of more than one minute on the climb, even if he’s not matching the strongest climbers, he could well defend pink, and carry it into the third week.

That would put Almeida deep into uncharted territory. You never know when the wheels will spin off the cart for a young rider. Remember Simon Yates in 2018? He looked unbeatable — until he wasn’t. But what if Almeida doesn’t crack going into week three? A tenacious 22-year-old with nothing to lose could become a very deep thorn for any would-be Giro winner to disgorge. And with a final-day time trial waiting in Milano, Almeida wearing pink going into the final week will present a clear and present danger for overall victory.

Almeida is no slack. He’s already notched a string of impressive results this year that already had him as an outsider before starting this Giro.

Nibali and others are fully aware of this, and one can easily imagine a collection of interests spontaneously gelling out on the road if there is a split in the bunch on one of the upcoming climbs, and Almeida is on the wrong side of it. It behooves everyone to eliminate Almeida if they want to win the Giro.

And with Geraint Thomas already out of the picture, Ineos Grenadiers is already turning its collective forces into a stage-hunting machine. That means it’s going to be up to Trek-Segafredo to take control of the race and take it to Almeida. They better not wait too long. Imagine the scenario when one of the big mountain stages is snowed out? The pressure is on for the rivals to go after the young Portuguese leader sooner than later.

How long can João Almeida hold on to the lead at the 2020 Giro d'Italia
How long can João Almeida hold on to the lead at the 2020 Giro d’Italia? Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

For Almeida, that sound of a crack could happen tomorrow, or it might not happen until the last climb of the last mountain stage. With a final-day time trial waiting in Milan, every day in pink is one day closer to a miracle.

The Giro is unlike any other race on the calendar. Almeida could hit a water bottle, get run over by a dog, or slip on some Roman-era cobblestones randomly thrown into some stage out of the middle of nowhere. Or he could keep hanging in there. Not many expected Tadej Pogačar to win the Tour de France, either.