Giro d'Italia

Who is João Almeida? We talked to him to find out

WorldTour rookie making waves early in the Giro d'Italia.

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João Almeida came into the Giro d’Italia hoping for a good ride, but riding into the pink jersey in the first week is beyond perhaps than what he could have imagined in his wildest dreams.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step comes to the Giro with a mixed squad, and Almeida has all the freedom he needs to see how far he can. Remco Evenepoel was supposed to be the star of this Giro. With the Belgian rider out with an injury, it’s been Almeida who’s been delivering the success.

As a first-year pro, Almeida already has an impressive palmares in the U23 ranks, and lit up his first races back since the COVID-19 comeback.

So who is this young rider from Portugal leading the Giro? Last week, I spoke to Almeida just a few days before the Giro d’Italia started. Here are a few of the more interesting takeaways:

Only third Portuguese to lead a grand tour

It’s hard to believe that João Almeida is only the third Portuguese rider in history to lead a grand tour. But there he is, at the ripe age of 22, leading the Giro d’Italia. Almeida rode two years in the U.S. and another one in Italy before joining the WorldTour. Although Portugal has several smaller, continental-level teams, Almeida said there isn’t a lot of support for junior and U23 talents in his own country.

“Cycling in Portugal is a bit strange,” Almeida said. “There are a lot of races and teams, but they are only at the pro level. There are only one or two races there a year for the younger riders. The best young riders have to leave Portugal if they want to try to become professional. They need to invest more in younger racing.”

Those other Portuguese grand tour leaders? Acácio da Silva wore the pink jersey and the yellow jersey at the Tour de France in the late 1980s. Joaquim Agostinho held the lead during 1976 Vuelta a España.

Second rider from Hagens Berman Axeon to lead a grand tour

Hagens Berman Axeon has produced some incredible talent over the past decade. The development has seen dozens of riders move from the U23 ranks to the WorldTour. Almeida is the second rider to lead a grand tour after graduating from the team. The first? Taylor Phinney, who rode for the development team in 2009 and 2019, led the 2012 Giro after winning the opening time trial in Denmark.

“That team was really good for me for two years,” Almeida said. “It was like as we were already living like professionals. Axel Merckx and the sport directors really help all the riders to improve. They teach us the lesson that you might have talent as a cyclist, but if you do not work hard, that talent is useless.”

Latest of ‘Gen Z’ to rise to top

Born in 1998, the 22-year-old is among a new generation of very young riders having immediate success in the WorldTour. Before barnstorming into the Giro, Almeida has successes across the restarted season. He was third in the Vuelta a Burgos behind teammate and media darling, Remco Evenepoel. In fact, it was Evenepoel’s injury that sent Almeida to the Giro instead of a planned grand tour debut at the Vuelta a España. As a developing rider, he won the U23 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and was second to Aleksandr Vlasov at the 2018 Baby Giro, and seventh behind Tadej Pogačar in the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir.

“I’ve been racing against Tadej since we were juniors, but I don’t know him real well,” Almeida said. “There are many young riders doing well now, and I think it’s because we are living like professionals already when we are younger.”

Lives near Nazaré monster waves but he’s no surfer

Maybe you’ve read about the monster waves that build up each winter off the coast of Portugal? They can top 100 feet and draw the world’s top big-wave surfers in droves. Despite growing up nearby, Almeida is no surfer.

“I have been there to see the big waves. It is quite impressive,” he said. “When I was younger, I played soccer and I swam, but I never surfed. I only surfed for the first time when I went to the Tour Down Under. Maybe it’s something I can do later.”

Chris Froome is an example he follows

Almeida sees himself becoming a grand tour rider. And the way this Giro is unfolding, that seems to be coming true sooner than even he expected. Chris Froome was a hero as he was growing up, and though he doesn’t know the four-time Tour de France winner, he admires Froome’s tenacity and professionalism.

“I like the way he races. He always attacks, and he never gives up,” Almeida said. “I hope to grow into a grand tour racer. I’ve already done well in one-week races, and I think I can become a Tour rider in the future. Maybe I can answer that question better after this Giro.”