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Fifteen minutes after the winner of stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia had been decided, the main bunch came to the line. The young Portuguese rider, João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep), attacked off the front of the peloton, snatching a two-second advantage and slightly extending his grasp on the race lead.
A day later, Almeida finished safely in the lead group of favourites. On the podium, for the 15th day in a row, the 22-year-old pulled on the maglia rosa, popped the cork off a magnum of Astoria, and sprayed the socially distant throng of photographers in front of him.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that João Almeida won’t win the Giro d’Italia. But for 15 days, the first-year pro has turned conventional wisdom on its head.
After more than 71 hours in the saddle – riding smartly, racing aggressively – Almeida holds a 17-second lead over Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb). Two mountain stages await, interspersed with a flat stage 19, before the race concludes with an individual time trial in Milan. If the unheralded youngster holds on, it will prove one of the great upsets of recent Grand Tour history.
Despite leading the 2020 Giro for almost the entirety of its duration, João Almeida is still far from a household name. As he keeps confounding expectations, it seems like now is as good a time as any to take a look at who he is, where he came from, and whether he can win this thing.
João Almeida was born in the small coastal city of Caldas da Rainha in August 1998, and joined his first amateur team in 2013. In 2017, still just 19 years old, Almeida scored his first Continental contract with the Bulgarian Unieuro Trevigiani-Hemus 1896 squad. A year later, he went Pro Continental with the Hagens Berman Axeon team, a well-regarded US development squad that has seeded an impressive number of riders into the WorldTour.
Although a small Portuguese town and a Bulgarian Continental team may seem inauspicious beginnings for a future Grand Tour leader, there were signs of Almeida’s growth into a potential force of the future.
In 2018, his first year racing for Hagens Berman Axeon, he won the U23 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and foreshadowed his 2020 breakthrough with second overall at the Giro Ciclistica d’Italia – the ‘Baby Giro’.
In 2019, Almeida won the U23 Portuguese road and time trial championships and finished fourth overall at the Tour of Utah, behind a trio of riders now plying their trade in the WorldTour.
Those results were enough to attract the attention of Deceuninck-QuickStep, one of cycling’s top squads. For two years, Almeida joined the team on training camps, before finally signing a two-year contract with them in August 2019.
At the time, team CEO Patrick Lefevere said “We are known for our knack of spotting young guys, promoting them on the WorldTour and developing them into successful riders over time,” Lefevere said. “The latest in this long line is João Almeida, who we have been following for a few years, thus getting an idea what he is capable of. The strong and consistent results he has had underline his talent and ambition, and knowing he will ride for our outfit gives us a lot of satisfaction.”
2020 has not been an easy year for any professional cyclist to navigate – let alone a first year pro – although Almeida seems to have passed through the turbulence in fine form. At the Vuelta a Burgos – one of the very first races back after the resumption of the season – Almeida finished third overall. A week later, he won the youth classification at the Tour de l’Ain, finishing seventh overall, and then came third at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali. He was named to Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Giro d’Italia squad, taking a start in his first ever Grand Tour in his first professional season, having just turned 22.
The race got off to a promising start for Almeida, who finished second in the opening time trial behind another young phenomenon, Filippo Ganna. On stage three, as many pre-race favourites cracked around him on the slopes of Mount Etna, Almeida ascended with the leading group to move into the maglia rosa. In the fortnight since, he’s been a master of consistency, conserving losses and snatching bonuses, as on stage 16. “It wasn’t the plan – I just thought that the best defense is attacking,” Almeida said at the finish on that day.
As the race has gone on, the race lead has transformed from a happy bonus for Almeida into a viable final goal. On stage 17, he was stoic in his defence against the attacks of Wilco Kelderman, thanking his team after the finish for helping conserve his position.
The young Portuguese rider has also been effusive in his acknowledgment of the guiding hand that his development pathway through Hagens Berman Axeon has had on his career. “Axeon was really important for me,” he said, clad in pink in Cesenatico. “I learned a lot with them, with [team manager] Axel [Merckx], with everyone. In the end, you have to be strong, and for sure you get stronger in the team. But not just physically, your knowledge, mindset … you learn about it all in that team. They prepare you really well for the WorldTour.”
Almeida isn’t the only testament to the success of his former team. At this Giro d’Italia alone, there have been three stage wins by former Hagens Berman Axeon riders – Ruben Guerreiro (EF Pro Cycling), Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos). Three-time U23 ITT world champion Mikkel Bjerg (UAE Team Emirates) has also impressed. Just as youth has moved to the fore in other recent Grand Tours, the script of the 2020 Giro is being written not by grizzled veterans, but by relative newcomers like Almeida.
The Giro d’Italia faces an ambiguous next couple of days. The twin threats of COVID-19 and poor weather hang over the race as it moves into the high mountains. On the horizon lies a date with the Stelvio on stage 18, and three ascents to Sestriere on stage 20. The Stelvio may be the breaking point for Almeida’s run, but that’s been anticipated for two weeks. The recently announced route changes on stage 20 play into Almeida’s hands, and he’s likely to make some time back in the concluding time trial.
It’s far from a done deal, though. Wilco Kelderman’s Sunweb squad is the leading threat, Almeida says. “I’m worried about Kelderman right now,” he said yesterday. “I don’t want to lose the jersey, but we hope for the best and expect the worst. The gap is pretty good to the other ones, but I’m more worried about Kelderman.” Kelderman has been pro since 2012 and has four top-10 Grand Tour GC finishes; the “other ones” still in striking distance include Sunweb’s Jai Hindley, sitting in third overall, and multiple Grand Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali in fourth, 3:31 back. Almeida is in good company.
On Thursday, the Giro d’Italia continues, one day closer to Milan and the anointment of its newest champion. Regardless of what happens on the road until Sunday, though, it’s been a staggering debut Grand Tour for João Almeida.
A year ago, when Almeida signed his first pro contract, his goals were modest: “I’m looking forward to my first pro season, when I hope to help the team, learn and improve as much as possible,” he said at the time.
Synonymous with the pink jersey thus far at this year’s Giro, it’s safe to say that Almeida is exceeding expectations.