Some expected today’s stage from Bassano del Grappa to Madonna di Campiglio to be the day when the overall contenders finally put their cards on the table in an effort to bring João Almeida’s tenure in the Maglia Rosa to an end.
Such hopes, however, failed to materialize, as the overall contenders preferred to continue their waiting game. And now tomorrow’s grueling stage over the mythic Stelvio pass with a mountain-top finish at the Cancano Lake in the Stelvio National Park will provide any challengers to Almeida one of their final opportunities to make their own power grab in this year’s uncanny race.
Sure the climb to Madonna di Campiglio that the riders finished on today in stage 17 after more than 200 kilometers of racing is a historic climb. But it is not Stelvio which summits at 2,758 meters elevation and is the highest climb in this year’s Giro d’Italia.
And while the racing was fast from the start as a large breakaway formed, there was no one that posed a reasonable threat to Almeida’s lead in the group, and his Deceuninck-Quick-Step team was only too happy to let Australian Ben O’Connor ride to victory as Almeida’s squad simply maintained a steady tempo for their 22-year-old sensation.
And once again, he appeared to have little trouble holding onto the pink jersey as there were virtually no attacks from his challenger’s final climb.
Sure the Sunweb team tried with five kilometers remaining. And for a moment it looked like a strong move as Wilco Kelderman and Jai Hindley — who are sitting in second and third respectively — attacked in quick succession and initially gapped Almeida.
Hindley was the first to move and Kelderman quickly joined him. Behind, two-time Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali admitted, “It was very hard to keep that pace.”
Almeida momentarily appeared to struggle to close the gap, he did just that and extinguished the effort. “We tried to force something to get a gap on Almeida, but the climb was not hard enough and Almeida was also strong,” Kelderman conceded afterward.
While today’s stage was conspicuously short on attacks when it came to the general classification, few expect the racing to be so reserved tomorrow.
“It was hard to make a difference today on that climb,” said Sunweb coach Luke Roberts. “In the end, it was a bit of a checkmate among the GC competitors. But tomorrow is a day where we can expect some bigger gaps.”
Kelderman, who on paper remains the big favorite for final victory, agrees. “Tomorrow is another day. And it’s a hard day. Every day is a hard day in the Giro but tomorrow is important. We are not done yet.”
Almeida of course understands that the Stelvio will likely provide the single biggest obstacle to what would be a stunning upset victory in Milan on Sunday. “Tomorrow’s another day,” he says with caution. “I can have a bad day and lose everything just like that.”
So while few expected him to hold the Maglia Rosa this long, he has proven surprisingly resilient, sometimes even gaining time on his competitors. Although he only holds a 17-second gap on Kelderman, he has not lost this year’s Giro d’Italia just yet.