'It's going to be brutal' – Almeida eyes mountain showdown at Giro d'Italia
João Almeida was on familiar terrain on stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia, which brought the gruppo through Treviso on its flat run to the finish in Caorle. As a teenager, the Portuguese rider spent a season there with local squad Unieuro Trevigiani, a key waystation on his road to the WorldTour.
Almeida's position at this stage of the Giro, too, is a familiar one. Like in 2020, when he carried the maglia rosa for two weeks, he reaches the final days of this edition nursing genuine ambitions of winning the race outright. He enters the troika of decisive stages second overall, just 18 seconds behind Geraint Thomas (Ineos) and 11 ahead of Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).
Less familiar, however, is the aggression Almeida has shown to get to this point. A consistent rider blessed with a reliable diesel engine – a 'passista scalatore,' in the words of his old Trevigiani manager Marco Milesi when he joined the team as an 18-year-old – Almeida has typically ridden defensively in the high mountains, content to track the accelerations of others.
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That wariness seemed to disappear, however, on Monte Bondone on stage 16, where Almeida set his UAE Team Emirates squad to work midway up the climb before delivering the stage-winning attack with a shade under 6km to go. Only Thomas could follow, and together, they put 25 seconds into Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma). The man with a reputation for caution had just produced the most telling attack of the Giro to date. The complexion of the days ahead suddenly feels a little different.
"Yesterday, we saw there was a stretch of 5km at almost 9%, starting with about 9.5km to go. If you wanted to make the difference, that was the place," UAE Team Emirates directeur sportif Fabio Baldato told Cyclingnews in Caorle.
"If you left it until to the last 4km, which is where Thomas chased after him, then the climb was more rideable. Thomas came back to him there using a big gear, but João made the difference where it was steeper. With his lighter weight, he was able to do it."
UAE Team Emirates had signalled their intentions by setting the tempo from midway up Monte Bondone, with Davide Formolo and Jay Vine teeing up Almeida's acceleration on the steepest portion of the ascent. The rough outline of the plan had been sketched beforehand, but its final execution was left to Almeida's judgement. He had the option to call an audible at the line of scrimmage.
"In the end, it was up to João to make the 'call,' so to speak," Baldato said. "We decided if he got there and felt good, then he'd say, 'Yes, let's go.' Otherwise, we'd have looked to defend him. Above all, it was his legs and his head that decided we'd go for it. It's easy to make plans, but ultimately, it's up to the rider.
"It's easy to say now, but we've believed in João from the start. Maybe it was important to win a stage too, to free himself a bit, but João has always been a calm guy, and he passes that calm to his teammates, too."
The road ahead
A Giro repeatedly billed as a duel – first between Roglič and Remco Evenepoel, then between Roglič and Ineos, and latterly between Roglič and Geraint Thomas – now has the look of a three-way contest as it enters its final, decisive phase. At the start in Pescara, Almeida appeared content to suggest a podium finish would be the summit of his ambition. Now, with three days in the mountains remaining, the Trofeo Senza Fine is clearly within reach, even if, typically, he was reluctant to talk up the idea in Caorle on Wednesday evening.
"I don't know, let's find out in Rome," Almeida told Cyclingnews. "I feel it's a good year for me. I'm feeling good and I want to make the most of it.
"I was very good yesterday. It was a really long day. At the end of the day, I was very pleased with the results and effort I did after six hours of fast racing. Hopefully, I keep going like this and everything is going to go as smooth as possible."
After two weeks of stalemate among the overall contenders, Almeida's forcing at Monte Bondone created the first real differences in a road stage after crashes, COVID-19 and time trials had accounted for most of the other alterations to the GC before now. Both he and Baldato downplayed the notion, however, that the hierarchy of Monte Bondone would necessarily repeat itself at Val di Zoldo on Thursday or at Tre Cime di Lavaredo on Friday.
"No, I think Roglič is still very good. In the end, it was only 25 seconds, nothing crazy. I'm expecting him to be up there with us, for sure," said Almeida, a point echoed by Baldato. "It's still very tight between the top three," he said. "It could all change."
In a race of such fine margins, certain details could tip the balance. The strength of Almeida's UAE Team Emirates guard on Tuesday was notable, while the abandon of Pavel Sivakov means that Thomas now has just four riders alongside him to defend his maglia rosa. "Yes, but Thomas still has two very strong climbers with him in Arensman and De Plus," Baldato said. "Ultimately, all that counts is the legs in the climbs."
On stage 18, the 19% ramps on the penultimate climb of Coi should provide another indication of the hierarchy ahead of the stage 19 Dolomite tappone to Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the fearsome time trial to Monte Lussari.
After his display on Monte Bondone – arguably his most striking since his defiant, solo defence of pink at Piancavallo in 2020 – Almeida will be starting to believe that he has as good a chance as anyone else at withstanding the rigours of the Giro's grandstand finale. He went close as a neophyte three years ago. A lot, it seems, has changed since.
"It's going to be brutal," Almeida said on Wednesday. "A bit of a challenge, I would say."