The 24-year-old was sitting in fourth overall at the Giro when he was forced to pull out of the race and his comeback from the virus has severely disrupted his form and flow heading into the second half of the year.
That said, the Portuguese rider took a stunning final day stage win at the recent Vuelta a Burgos and claimed second overall to help boost his confidence.
“There’s no stress. I will do everything that I can but I’ll have my feet on the ground,” he told VeloNews when asked about his hopes ahead of his Vuelta debut.
“The route starts in Holland, so there won’t be much climbing. It will all be about positioning and of course you need the legs but it’s a good start for me. Maybe I can evolve as the race goes on.”
Almeida was speaking just a couple of days into the Vuelta a Burgos and before his stellar stage win on the final day in the mountains.
It’s fair to say that since abandoning the Giro in May the young rider’s trajectory has not quite gone to plan. He recovered from COVID but a break in the middle of the season, especially when it’s unscheduled, can disrupt a rider’s physical and mental well-being.
“I’ve not been feeling great since COVID. It’s been hard to gain form and feel 100 percent. I’m slowly getting there but I’m looking at the positive side of things. I’m slowly getting my feelings back again,” he said.
“I took two weeks off and then I slowly started to come back to training. I did nationals, where I could win the road race. I wasn’t feeling super but then I stopped again for a week and maybe that was a mistake, but I really needed that break mentally. Since then it’s been quite hard to be back but there’s no worry or stress. I’ll be there in my time.”
Blaming COVID for any potential dip in form is not Almeida’s style or motive. He was still very competitive at Burgos and only time will tell whether his training and fitness have the required depth to carry him through a three-week race but his break from WorldTour competition shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s a timely reminder of how tough it can be for elite athletes to return to their best condition mid-way through a campaign.
“Maybe it’s not 100 percent all COVID. Maybe it’s a mix of the stops, the COVID, and maybe another virus, I don’t know. Mentally it was tough, too,” he said. “There’s much worse things happening to other guys with crashes and the world in general, so it wasn’t such a big thing that I went through but on the other hand I worked so hard for it that it was really tough to leave the Giro like that. Especially when I was in such a good position. I’m over it now and I’m just focused on getting back to my top shape.”
With Tadej Pogačar not at the Vuelta, the responsibility of leadership will automatically fall on Almedia’s shoulders.
Cool, calm and collected, he doesn’t appear phased by any of that.
“I don’t really have big, big ambitions for the Vuelta. I will see when I arrive there and I’ll see how the legs are. I’ll take it day-by-day,” he said. “It’s sad that Tadej can’t go there as I would have had a lot of pleasure racing with him. I really like him. So that’s a pity. We also lost a strong rider. I’ll see what I can do and of course I’ll try and make a GC but I don’t have the best preparation to fight for the race in general but I’ll see where I can go.”
And as for the Giro and his poor luck in May, perhaps it will offer Almeida motivation and hunger when it comes to the Vuelta. Leaving the Giro when he was in such a strong position heading into the final week was a huge blow but the Portuguese rider is maturing nicely with each passing grand tour.
“Actually I watched the Giro from home. I wanted to see the other riders and how they went. Also, mentally for myself, I wanted to see what else I could do so I could get more confidence,” he said. “It was my third Giro but honestly the first one was a bit odd with the COVID situation.
“The second time I wasn’t the only leader and this year it was the real one where I was the leader from the beginning and it ended like it did. I think I could have made the podium. Not meaning to put the other riders below me but I think I would have been fighting for the podium. That was my goal. I’ll have to come back to the Giro another time.”