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João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) was hoping to have an impact in his grand tour debut. The 22-year-old never expected it to come so soon.
Just three days into his first grand tour, the highly touted rider became just the second Portuguese rider to don the Giro d’Italia‘s pink jersey.
“Leading a grand tour is a dream come true,” Almeida said. “This performance left me speechless, I can barely find the words to describe how I feel.”
Almeida was already in pole position to snag pink after Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) struggled following a crash in Wednesday’s neutral rollout. Almeida finished second in the Palermo time trial, 22 seconds behind Flippo Ganna, and one second faster than Thomas. With the 2018 Tour de France champion no longer a threat, Almeida had a clear road to pink.
A challenge came from stage-winner Jonathan Caicedo (EF Pro Cycling), who finished 1:10 slower than Ganna in Palermo. Caicedo won the stage, and looked primed to double up with the leader’s jersey as well. Almeida helped drive the pace on the upper reaches of Mount Etna, and crossed the line 11th.
The two were tied on time, and the tiebreaker were the fractions of seconds in Palermo’s time trial, with Almeida getting tipped for pink by the narrowest of margins.
“It was a suffer-fest until the finish, but I emptied myself out there,” Almeida said. “The pace was high on the last climb, so I just tried to control my effort. When the wind began blowing hard close to the top, I did everything to just hang in there and make it through the pain.”
Some might be surprised to see Almeida ride into pink, especially since Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammate Remco Evenepoel was supposed to be the one leading the way at this Giro. Evenepoel is still sidelined with injuries from his fall into a ravine at Il Lombardia, a mishap that opened the door for Almeida to start the Giro.
Almeida came hot out of the gate following the lockdown, including finishing third, overshadowed by Evenepoel, at the Vuelta a Burgos. He was seventh at Tour de l’Ain, third at Coppa e Bartali, and second at Giro dell’Emilia behind Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana).
Almeida came through the Hagen Bermans Axeon program, and is believed to be the first rider from the U.S. development team to lead a grand tour. He was second in the 2018 Baby Giro, also behind Vlasov, and seventh in the Tour de l’Avenir, behind winner Tadej Pogačar. He’s never raced more than 10 days at a stage race, so he will be entering unchartered territory in the second half of the Giro.
Almeida is the latest rider in their early 20’s making a big impact on cycling. Could he pull a Pogačar, and become a threat for overall victory late in this Giro?
Right now, he’s determined to carry pink as long as he can. There are three upcoming stages over uneven terrain that will mean defending the maglia rosa won’t be easy, with the double threat of breakaways staying clear or riders nipping at his heels.
“I am happy and proud to wear this iconic maglia rosa, which I will try to keep as much as I can,” said Almeida, who is just the third Portuguese rider to wear a leader’s jersey in a pink jersey.