NORTH SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (VN) — The Tour of Utah has become a proving ground for Under-23 riders, who use the tough stage race as a platform to score results and—hopefully—secure a job on a professional squad.
João Almeida, the 21-year-old Portuguese star on Axeon Hagens Berman, is racing this year’s Tour of Utah without the pressure of the job hunt. This week it was revealed that Almeida will race for WorldTour squad Deceuninck-Quick Step in 2020 and 2021, making him the latest graduate of the team to step into pro cycling’s highest echelon.
“I had more offers, but I always liked the team,” Almeida told VeloNews. “I did two training camps with them and I think the atmosphere in the team is really good. They have been making a good job with younger riders so I think that was it.”
Yet, with the pressure off, Almeida has still outperformed expectations. After four days of racing Almeida currently sits seventh on general classification, 2:38 behind leader Ben Hermans. He also holds a commanding lead in the Young Rider classification.
Almeida’s tactical smarts were on full display during the race’s first road stage on Monday. He attacked into the winning front group alongside Lawson Craddock (EF Education First) and stage winner Umberto Marengo ( Neri Sottoli – Selle Italia – KTM) in the waning moments of the race.
His fifth place finish on the day boosted him into second place overall on GC.
“João deserves a place in the WorldTour, it’s great for us to see him graduate to such a great team,” said Almeida’s director, Jeff Louder. “He’s a really solid stage racer and knows what he needs to do, especially in a race scenario. He’s obviously proving that this week. It’s not long for this team to still be getting results from him and for us that’s the sign of a true champion.”
Utah has an added significance in Almeida’s racing calendar this year, as he has chosen to forego competing in the Tour L’Avenier, the Under-23 version of the Tour de France.
The Portuguese Federation had contacted the team not long before plans had been set to attend both the Tour of Utah and Tour of Denmark, asking for Almeida’s participation in the Tour de L’Avenier.
Hagens Berman Axeon chose to accept the invite to Tour of Denmark instead, to ensure more race days for the riders, also because they simply did not have riders left to send to L’Avenier.
“We had to make a decision a while back because we didn’t know if USA Cycling was going to go to Tour de l’Avenir also, so we had to accept an invitation to Denmark to make sure our guys could race,” Merckx said. “Between Denmark and here, we don’t have any riders left to go to Tour de l’Avinier. It’s unfortunate for the federation but that’s what we were forced to do because of that situation. We got the notice very late.”
This season marks Almeida’s second year racing for Axeon, under the direction of Axel Merckx. Almeida was brought to the team’s attention by cycling agent and retired Portuguese rider, João Correira.
Merckx decided to give Almeida a chance. Portugal has produced a handful of pro riders in recent years, however it pales in comparison to its neighbors, Spain and France. Hagens Berman Axeon had two other Portuguese riders, the Oliveira brothers, Ivo and Rui who signed with UAE Emirates at the start of the 2019.
Merckx saw similar potential in Almeida.
Almeida seemed to be a step above his compatriots. In 2018 he became the first Portuguese rider to win U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, followed shortly with the Best Young Rider jersey and second overall at the Baby Giro. In 2019 the results eluded him in the spring, but bounced back with victories in Portugal’s Under-23 time trial and road race.
“We’ve had a few, good and successful Portuguese over the last couple of years,” Merckx said. “Portugal can still use a lot of support from teams like us and that’s what I like – to give young guys that maybe don’t have much of the same opportunities as the rest of Europeans, but for sure have just as much talent to showcase and to bring to a program where they feel familiar like they can improve and flourish to a WorldTour rider.”