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Vuelta a Espana

João Almeida: Only Tadej Pogačar could follow Remco Evenepoel at the Vuelta a España right now

UAE Team Emirates pairing of João Almeida and Juan Ayuso say Remco Evenepoel is 'almost unbeatable' at the moment but there's a lot more to come at the Vuelta.

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Only Tadej Pogačar could follow Remco Evenepoel in his Vuelta a España form right now, according to João Almeida. However, the UAE Team Emirates rider is keen to impress that the race is long and that may not always be the case.

Evenepoel has dominated the opening mountain forays at the Vuelta, taking a 1:12 lead over Enric Mas into the opening rest day with defending champion Roglič almost two minutes behind.

Almeida is currently sitting in seventh place overall at 4:32 while his teammate Juan Ayuso is in fifth at 2:36. The Portuguese rider said the Belgian was “almost unbeatable” but there’s still plenty of mountains and racing to come before the race concludes.

“For the moment, yes. I think that at the moment only Pogačar could follow him,” Almeida said when asked if Evenepoel was unbeatable. “In the last days, he’s been really strong. But there are still two weeks to go, and we don’t know how he will be. However, at the moment, he is going really well, and he is almost unbeatable.”

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Behind Evenepoel, Ayuso has been one of the stars in the first week of the Vuelta a España. The 19-year-old is making his grand tour debut after stepping into the professional ranks this season.

Though he has been off the pace of Evenepoel, he has often been ahead of many of the big-name GC contenders in the first mountaintop finishes. It has seen him rise tantalizingly close to the podium places and there’s plenty of excitement in his native Spain that there could be more as the country searches for its next grand tour winner.

However, he is not thinking so far ahead.

“I don’t even think about winning it, I go day by day, there is a long way to go, and I don’t want to think much further,” Ayuso said. “Although I am ambitious and if I can stay as far ahead as possible, I’m going to try, but I don’t want to set a goal because if I don’t achieve it, it would seem like a failure, and I don’t think that’s the case.”

JUan Ayuso has impressed so far at the Vuelta
JUan Ayuso has impressed so far at the Vuelta

Almeida came into the Vuelta a España as the primary GC contender for UAE Team Emirates, but he has been off the pace of his younger teammate. Like Ayuso, Almeida jumped onto the grand tour scene with an impressive debut performance, taking fourth at the 2020 Giro d’Italia and sixth at the same race last year.

He looked like he might be on course to beat at this year’s Giro, but he was forced to pull out ahead of the final week after testing positive for COVID-19. Almeida looked like he was coming into shape in time for the Vuelta with his storming victory on the final stage of the Vuelta a Burgos that catapulted him into second overall.

Despite that performance, Almeida says he was not at his best coming into the Vuelta.

“The Vuelta has been as I expected. I knew I was far from my maximum level, without much preparation. I’ve been taking the race day by day. On some days I’ve been surprised, following the favorites. Let’s see if my form improves a little bit in the next few weeks. We will give everything we have,” he said.

With Ayuso looking like the strongest of the UAE pair in his first attempt at a grand tour, there has been talk about potential tensions between them. Almeida denied that there was any such friction between himself and Ayuso.

“Despite what everyone keeps saying about us in the media or whatever, we are teammates, we work together. We both have our opportunities and what I know I will share always with him. Whatever I can teach him I will, but I’m still young as well. He’s much younger than me, so that’s it,” he said.

Ayuso doesn’t know how he will perform as he gets deeper into his first grand tour and he’s keen to learn from Almeida. The pair have spent a lot of time together recently in the build-up to the race and Ayuso believes that Almeida’s approach to racing will be good for him, too.

“We spent basically the last two and a half months together because we did an altitude training camp together and then we came here. So, the relationship is good. Of course, we both want to get the best result possible, but we’re a team,” Ayuso said. “After spending so many days with him, you get to learn. I think one of the best things João has is that cycling is just a part of life and it’s not the end of the world if you have a bad day. That really helps me. If I have a bad day, I just don’t think about it anymore.”