As João Almeida made his way through the mixed zone atop Piancavallo after stage 15 of the Giro d’Italia, he must have faced at least five variations on the same question. How hard was it, João? Almeida responded along similar lines each time: “I can tell you it was the hardest stage so far.”
Recent bias certainly didn’t inform Almeida’s answer, which came after what was, in essence, his second time trial in as many days. In Valdobbiadene on Saturday, Almeida extended his overall lead to almost a minute with an assured display against the watch. Just 24 hours later, he was pressed into another solo effort on the slopes of Piancavallo, spending the last six kilometres alone as he defended his maglia rosa by 15 seconds from Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb).
The terms of engagement on the final climb were dictated by Kelderman’s resolute Sunweb squad, with Chris Hamilton whittling down the pink jersey group before Jai Hindley took over with a shade over 7km to go. By then, grandees like Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fulgsang (Team Astana) had been distanced, but the neophyte Almeida was still hanging tough behind Hindley, Kelderman and eventual stage winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers).
Almeida lost contact soon afterwards, but never lost heart, even if the wide road from Aviano up to Piancavallo seemed only to underscore the loneliness of his effort. Much of the way up the climb, he could see his prey ahead of him, and for a couple of kilometres, the gap remained stable at 10 seconds or so. Almeida faded closer to the summit, but he mustered a sprint in the closing metres to come home fourth on the stage, 37 seconds down.
“I was expecting someone to attack and Kelderman did it, he was super strong. He was stronger today,” said Almeida, who carries the maglia rosa into Monday’s rest day. The race resumes on Tuesday with a tough stage to Madonna di Campiglio, followed – weather conditions allowing – by the tappone over the Stelvio.
Given Kelderman’s strength, the arduous road ahead and his own inexperience, Almeida acknowledged that he would be hard pressed to keep the jersey all the way to the Piazza del Duomo next Sunday.
“I’ll give my best,” Almeida said. “I know it will be almost impossible to bring the maglia rosa to Milan, but we will try and give everything we have.”
Although Almeida’s lead over Kelderman has been slashed to just 15 seconds, the gaps have lengthened to the rest of the field. The impressive Hindley is now third at 2:56, one second ahead of Geoghegan Hart. Everyone else is more than three minutes down, including Nibali, who dropped to seventh at 3:29 back. All told, Almeida suggested afterwards, his day had been a good one.
“For me, it was really positive,” Almeida said. “I can tell you from the first climb, the rhythm was very high but I felt good all day. There were just stronger riders up there. There are still six stages to go and I’ve never done anything as long as this, but so far, the feeling is good. I’m excited to see how far I can go.”