NTT Pro Cycling was tightening the vise. Other GC favorites were turning the screws. Yet João Almeida didn’t crack when many thought he would in Thursday’s long, cold and challenging stage at the Giro d’Italia.
The 22-year-old Portuguese rider continues to defy expectations. Protected by Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Almeida finished safely in the diminished GC group of 20 riders into Marco Pantani’s hometown to defend the pink jersey for one more day.
“Despite everything this stage threw at us, I was very calm because I knew there was such a strong and committed team around me,” Almeida said. “We spent almost six hours in the saddle, had a lot of rain and low temperatures, but at the end of the day we retained the pink jersey, which is the most important thing.”
As the saying goes, defending a race lead is always easier than trying to take it away. And so far, Almeida is clearly in no mood to be generous.
Ever since taking the leader’s jersey in stage 3, the grand tour rookie keeps riding beyond his years. His lead is now 34 seconds to Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), with Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) lurking in fifth at 1:01 back.
Many are wondering just how far Almeida can go.
“I think he’ll keep the jersey until stage 15,” said Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Larry Warbasse, referring to Sunday’s uphill finale at Piancavallo. “I think he’s showed an incredible level, and he has an amazing time trial, and a great punch. I think maybe he could be a bit fatigued by then, and maybe lose it on a really hard climb like Piancavallo.”
Almeida came into this Giro as a dark horse. In fact, it was supposed to be Remco Evenepoel lighting up the Giro. Instead, the Belgian’s crash forced Quick-Step reshuffle its deck, and the team pulled Almeida out of a planned start at the Vuelta a España, and brought him to the Giro.
The move’s paid off in spades. Almeida was second in the opening time trial in Palermo, and after Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) crashed and pulled the plug after stage 3, Almeida followed the wheels up Mount Etna to become only the second Portuguese rider to don pink.
Ever since then, Almeida’s been draped behind the protective curtain of an experienced and veteran Deceuninck-Quick-Step squad. Right now, everyone on the Giro squad is giving up their own chances to help defend the maglia rosa.
“Of course it’s a stage that suits me, but we have the maglia rosa in the team to defend, and that’s our main goal of the day. That’s our only goal for the moment is to defend the maglia rosa of Almeida, and so far I think we have done a good job,” said Mikkel Frolich Honoré. “We all knew he was always very strong, but still, coming here, in the first GT, and taking the maglia rosa for nine days so far, that’s impressive, and a dream for all of us.”
Earlier in the race, every day in pink is a bonus. But with the way Almeida is carrying himself so deep into the Giro, his rivals are starting to get worried.
Everyone is still expecting the likes of Kelderman, Nibali, and Domenico Pozzovivo (NTT) to surge to the fore in the third week, but what happens if foul weather forces some of the harder stages to be rerouted? Or if the growing wave of COVID-19 cases derails the race? The GC favorites can’t wait too long.
“I could see him holding the pink jersey all this week,” said UAE-Emirate’s Joe Dombrowski. “I would say that among the GC contenders, he is one of the best time trialists, and this is a TT-heavy Giro, so perhaps he could even win. There has been talk about whether we will even be able to do the mountain stages as planned. It is impossible to know at this point. Like everything this year, there are so many things that are just out of our hands. I would think that Almeida would benefit from an easier final week.”
With Thursday’s stage, Almeida is already pedaling into unknown territory. His longest races were at such events as the Tour de l’Avenir and the Baby Giro, both 10 days, and neither with the long, grueling stages of more than 200km, not to mention the pace and pressure of a grand tour.
Even Almeida is unbelieving of how things keep turning his way. With a sprinter’s profile on tap Friday, Saturday’s 34.1km individual time trial could see him actually widening his lead going into Sunday’s important mountaintop appointment.
“I have to say that it was another hard stage,” Almeida said. “Having such a great squad around me motivated me to do my best and keep the jersey for as long as possible. I never thought I would wear it for so many days when I pulled it on for the first time and I’m happy that I could do it for more than a week.”
Could Almeida even hang on to win?
“Never say never,” Warbasse said. “Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Literally, anything is possible.”