The Portuguese youngster showed the strength of his mettle in the waning kilometers of Tuesday’s stage 16 to San Daniele del Friuli, which at 229km was the longest of the race. Even though the stage win had long been contested, Almeida attacked from the group of GC favorites on the slight rise just before the finish, carving out a two-second gap on his rivals at the line.
“That wasn’t the plan, actually,” Almeida said at the finish. “I just thought that the best defense is attacking. That’s why I accelerated.”
The move no doubt won Almeida fans across Italy for his aggressive riding — it also gave him a morale boost heading into the punishing conclusion of this year’s race. Those two seconds aren’t much, but Almeida’s ability to still distance his rivals in just his first grand tour is a show of force that will undoubtedly raise his spirits.
“Two seconds won’t change much,” he said. “I don’t think those seconds will make the difference. But it was a short and explosive climb, and normally I’m good at that. I had the legs and I felt really good.”
Almeida has held the Giro’s pink jersey for 12 consecutive stages, and in recent days his grip on the race lead has appeared tenuous.
During Sunday’s summit finish to Piancavallo Almeida was dropped with 7km remaining in the climb by the Sunweb duo of Wilco Kelderman and Jai Hindley. Almeida saw most of his 56-second advantage on Kelderman evaporate in the ensuing kilometers, but he fought hard to maintain a 15-second lead at the finish.
The stage narrowed the fight for pink to Almeida and Kelderman, as the gap back to third place Hindley is nearly three minutes.
“I’m worried about Kelderman right now,” Almeida said. “I don’t want to lose the jersey, but we hope for the best and expect the worst. The gap is pretty good to the other ones, but I’m more worried about Kelderman.”
Kelderman and Team Sunweb have emerged as the top rivals to Almeida’s pink jersey, and on Wednesday’s stage 17 the squad will undoubtedly look to take the race lead. The hulking 203km stage from Bassano del Grappa to Madonna di Campiglio includes four categorized climbs: the category 1 ascents of the Forcella Valbona and Monte Bondone; then the category 3 climb of Passo Durone; followed by the summit finish to Madonna di Campiglio.
The final climb is 11.9km in length, and it averages 5.9 percent.
While Almeida’s Deceuninck–Quick-Step squad has done an admirable job to protect him through the first two weeks, there are doubts about the squad’s ability to help him in the high mountains. Almeida’s teammate Fausto Masnada has blossomed into a top climbing domestique at the race. But Sunweb has four top climbing domestiques to shepherd Kelderman, including Hindley, who now sits in third place overall.
“He’s been riding really strong, you can see he’s growing every day,” Almeida said about Hindley.
Whether or not Hindley and Kelderman are able to unseat Almeida will be the biggest story to follow in the third week of the Giro. The fireworks kick off Wednesday with the summit finish.
Almeida said the final climb will be new to him.
“I’ve never been up there before — hopefully I have good legs tomorrow and we hope for the best,” he said.
“It’s going to be really hard. I want to defend the jersey, and let’s see if we can do it.”