I want to take João Almeida back to the 2020 Giro d’Italia when he first, to borrow a football parlance, burst onto the scene. He was just 22, competing in his debut Grand Tour in his first year as a neo-pro, and after finishing just behind the front group on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna on day three, he took the maglia rosa. And he didn’t relinquish the lead for “15 days. Fifteen days I had it,” he interrupts me and repeats the statistic, the memory as fresh as ever in his mind. “Good times. Really good times.”
In the ensuing three years, Almeida has achieved a lot, but still that Giro performance, when he eventually finished fourth riding for Deceuninck–Quick-Step, stands out. “I was aware I was a good rider, I could see my numbers, but I didn’t know if I was a GC rider for Grand Tours,” he remembers. “We started with the GC in mind but the mentality was that we had nothing to lose.”
Better remembered as the Covid-enforced autumn edition of the Corsa Rosa, Almeida was expected to cede his leadership as soon as the big mountains arrived, but he displayed a tactical astuteness that belied his tender years by continuously picking up bonus seconds to strengthen his advantage. Come stage 18, however, he finally cracked. “After that Giro, I thought, ‘OK, maybe this was a one off. I did it once, that’s it. Can I do it twice?’”
He answered that the following May, riding to sixth in the Giro, and by then he had attracted the calls of UAE Team Emirates. “Things went great again, apart from one bad day which is part of the game sometimes, and I could feel that, yeah, I actually was a Grand Tour rider.”
In his first two seasons with UAE, Almeida has returned to the Giro twice more, abandoning with Covid before stage 18 in 2022 when fourth overall, and then taking third place in 2023. In that same period, he’s also finished fifth and ninth at the Vuelta a España.
And yet. Despite impressive and admirable consistency in three-week races, and a five-year contract from his employers, Almeida still doesn’t get talked about as a race favourite. The perception is that the 25-year-old has got all the qualities to win a Grand Tour – except that tiny one per cent needed to convert a prospect into a winner. His conservative style in an era of full-blooded racing doesn’t help, either. “Yeah, yeah I know it,” he recognises. “But I don’t feel like I am at my peak yet, and I feel like I still have something to develop and evolve. I’m not sure how much, and if it will be enough for victory, but I’m relaxed about it.
“If I don’t believe I can do it, I’ll never achieve it. And I do believe I can do it. Maybe some people will be surprised, some people not so. As long as I am happy with myself and satisfied.”
He scored his maiden Grand Tour victory at the most recent Giro, launching his sprint in the final 200 metres on stage 16 to get the better of Geraint Thomas. “I was very happy, also in the way I did it,” he reflects. “Looking back, it gives me a lot of confidence. It was a weird Giro – I was sick, on antibiotics, there was sh*t weather, crashes everywhere – but the day I won, I attacked, and I felt great. I proved I can do it sometimes.”
There’s a steely conviction in Almeida’s words, a confidence in the process. “I like to feel the evolution, see the numbers progress,” he says. “You need to have a strong mentality to be a cyclist – to not get tired weighing food, to be super professional, at 200% all of the time. I only imagine myself as a cyclist. There is only cycling for me.”
He is indisputably Portugal’s biggest cycling star, but he’s as detached as he can be from his home country’s cycling scene. And with good reason. “There’s a lot of chaos,” he accepts, a reference to the seemingly cyclical repeat of domestic doping scandals. “Luckily, when I was on junior teams, I had some coaches with a good mindset, and my goal was to leave Portugal as fast as possible. And I did that after my junior years.
“I think I created my reputation outside of Portugal – people know me from the WorldTour. Though I am Portuguese, my flag doesn’t put me in the chaos thing. But for future guys, maybe it’s a problem, to always be associated with that chaos.”
Going forward, Almeida wants to be known as a Grand Tour winner. In 2024, he’s eschewing the Giro for the first time and making his Tour de France bow, followed by another tilt at the Vuelta. “It’s pretty exciting,” he says. “And it’s also like, ‘woah, good luck!’ After the Giro podium, I felt like I was ready to move onto the Tour, and the team respected that.”
He’ll be part of a UAE team also containing Pogačar, Adam Yates and Juan Ayuso, and while there is a nod to Pogačar being “the number one as he’s the strongest guy on the planet”, Almeida doesn’t discount himself. “If I have to pull for Tadej, I will do so with a smile on my face. It will be a pleasure to ride for him.
“I’ve not won a lot, but the level is so freaking high. Every race there is a Roglič, a Remco or a Vingegaard, so it’s not easy to win, but mostly I have been in the top-three of races. I’m very happy with how things have been going, and this season I just want to go one point above, get that bit stronger. My mentality is always the same: legs. It’s all about the legs.”