After more than two weeks of what seemed to be an unspoken – but unbroken – truce among the GC favorites at the Giro d’Italia, João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) finally decided to disturb the peace on Tuesday.
To the relief of fans everywhere, the 24-year-old Portuguese all-rounder surged into action with just under 6 km to go on stage 16, getting a small gap before drawing Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) with him.
Bruno Armirail (Groupama-FDJ), who started the stage as the surprise leader even this late into the race, had been dropped earlier on the final climb, leaving only a small group to watch Almeida and Thomas ride away. Unable to follow the move, Primož Roglič went on the defensive with his Jumbo-Visma teammate Sepp Kuss setting the pace for the Slovenian and for Eddie Dunbar (Jayco-AlUla).
The chasers did a respectable job to limit their losses, but there would be no catching Almeida and Thomas, who allied themselves off the front until the final moments of the stage, where Almeida fired off a final salvo to nab the win.
At last, a GC hopeful had attacked other GC hopefuls. Some riders had moved up on the overall standings. Others had lost ground. In other words, for the first time in the 2023 Giro (unless you count the time trial stages) there was real GC action on stage 16. It wasn’t even that much of a hammer blow, really, but it was at least something.
Up to this point, the GC contenders haven’t just been keeping their powder dry. They’ve been stockpiling it in a secure location without even a hint of interest in using it, instead leaving it up to the breakaway riders to provide all the action in the race. Thanks to Almeida, this changed on Tuesday.
On the face of it, that may come as a bit of a surprise, especially considering the previously held two-second gap at the top between Thomas and Roglič pointed to an Ineos Grenadiers vs Jumbo-Visma showdown. Both riders are former Grand Tour winners with strong teams around them, and they were sitting second and third on GC to start the stage behind a rider most expected would drop out of contention (which he did) on the tough climbs. Almeida looked like the third of three possible GC favorites.
Now, he looks like a very real contender for pink, and perhaps that isn’t actually that big of a surprise. For starters, Almeida has long been seen as a rising GC star. Still only 24 years old, he has garnered more experience racing at a high level than most riders his age, having joined the WorldTour ranks with Deceuninck-Quick Step when he was 21.
Since then, he has consistently shown off his talent both as a climber and a time trialist, picking up quality stage wins in big races here and there, spending time in the pink jersey at the Giro, and delivering three finishes inside the top six overall in his first four Grand Tour appearances.
Tuesday’s attack, then, was a shot across the bow that has actually been a long time coming.
The fact that the move that finally sparked a GC battle at this race came from Almeida also made sense considering the other two top contenders in the race. Thomas and Roglič both have a long history of success built on a foundation of grinding their rivals into submission on challenging climbs, often only putting daylight between themselves and the rest of the field in the final few hundred meters.
If they were hoping to do that again on Tuesday, it was up to Almeida to flip the script. Despite his similarly well-rounded skillset, he delivered, refusing to wait until the finishing straight and instead making his attack from a few kilometers out on the steep gradients of the Monte Bondone climb. What’s more, he still had enough left in the tank to out-kick Thomas at the end of the day, claiming his first Grand Tour stage win in the process.
At last, those watching the race were gifted a chance to see some movement on the overall standings, and the rest of this final week should provide more opportunities for the pink jersey hopefuls to exchange blows. After a sprinter-friendly stage 17 on Wednesday, three straight days that should prove crucial to the overall standings await, and even after Almeida’s attack forced some changes to the GC standings, things do remain quite close at the top – less than 30 seconds separate the podium.
In Almeida’s post-race comments, he seemed committed to doing what he could to continue the battle in the days ahead.
“I will always try to go for more,” he said when asked of continuing to push for the overall lead. “If I feel good I will attack, if I don’t attack maybe it’s because I’m not so good but I will fight until the end and give everything I have.”
Thanks to Almeida, perhaps we can dare to dream that there will be more action to come among those vying for the overall win at this 106th Giro d’Italia.