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Vuelta a Espana

‘I’ve not been feeling great’: João Almeida downplays Vuelta a España form

Portuguese captain uncertain after sub-optimal preparation, while talented teenage teammate Juan Ayuso looks to enjoy debut grand tour.

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We’re used to contenders being cautious when it comes to talking up their chances before a race, but UAE Team Emirates leader João Almeida was playing it extra careful ahead of the 2022 Vuelta a España.

“Of course, I’m going to try GC as much as I can. I’ve not been with great, super legs,” Almeida said.

“I don’t want to have the expectation of the podium or something. I’m going to give everything I have, but I want to keep my feet on the ground.”

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He abandoned the Giro d’Italia in May, days from the finish with a COVID-19 positive, when positioned fourth overall.

“I think it’s already in the past, I don’t have any symptoms. I stopped for quite a good time, form doesn’t come that fast. I feel recovered physically and mentally,” Almeida said.

“In the last months, I’ve not been feeling great, not feeling the best. My preparation was not ideal, as I wanted it to be,” he said.

“That’s a part of cycling, you cannot always feel good. In Burgos, I was still OK so maybe I will surprise during the Vuelta.”

His results there suggest he was more than OK. Almeida was second overall, winning the final stage on Lagunas de Neila. The next three weeks will tell whether this is a bluff or the truth.

Almeida also turned his thoughts to Friday’s race-opening TTT around Utrecht.

“I don’t think the differences will be huge,” the Portuguese says. “It depends if it rains or not and how many risks we want to take.” He anticipated that the gaps wouldn’t be more than a minute.

The chosen Juan

Many are hopeful Juan Ayuso can emerge as a legitimate GC threat. (Photo: onzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

The Portuguese must feel like a grizzled veteran compared to the man sat to his left at the UAE Team Emirates video press conference. Super-talent Juan Ayuso is fresh off a first pro win at the Circuito de Getxo and a giant contract extension to 2028.

The 19-year-old is the first teenager to start the Vuelta a España since Eduardo Chozas in 1980.

“Actually, I didn’t know that fact so now I have something to tell my grandmother,” he said, laughing. “I know I’m the youngest in the race and that helps me to just enjoy it.

“I know there’s a big pressure, especially from Spanish people,” he added. “I think I’m lucky my first grand tour is my home country. So really, I just want to learn and get prepared for the upcoming years.”

Pressed on whether he was feeling the pressure, he smiled and said: “No, I know there’s pressure but I know how to handle it. For me, it’s not a problem.”

UAE-Team Emirates also lines up with Brandon McNulty, fresh off a star supporting role to runner-up Tadej Pogačar at the Tour de France, and Marc Soler in their eight-rider team.

Ackermann hunts Vuelta victory

Meanwhile, Pascal Ackermann, who won two Vuelta stages in 2020, will fight for victory in the bunch sprints. The German identified Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Deceuninck) as his main competitor.

“Sometimes it’s not more easy to have fewer big sprinters, because with many of them. It’s more controlled and there’s more opportunities for a sprint,” he added. “We need to see in the race who is in good shape because it’s the end of the year, many riders are tired.”