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What if Joao Almeida hadn’t ridden for Remco Evenepoel?

On Wednesday’s stage 17 of the Giro d’Italia we saw the first cracks appear in the armour of race leader Egan Bernal (Ineos-Grenadiers). The Colombian couldn’t handle the pace on the final climb to Sega di Ala and several of his GC rivals ended up cutting into Bernal’s lead.

Simon Yates (BikeExchange) was the biggest winner, taking nearly a minute and moving up to third overall, but Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) had a terrific day as well. The 22-year-old, who led last year’s Giro for 15 stages, attacked several times on the final climb and ended up putting more than a minute into Bernal. With that, Almeida moved up from 10th to eighth overall, and now sits 8:45 behind Bernal.

Meanwhile, Almeida’s teammate Remco Evenepoel – whom Deceuninck-QuickStep was riding for in this year’s Giro – dropped another 35 minutes and ultimately left the race having suffered multiple injuries in a nasty crash.

It’s arguably been clear since stage 11 that Almeida was Deceuninck-QuickStep’s strongest rider in the GC and yet it was only on stage 16, a day when Evenepoel went on to lose 24 minutes, that Almeida was given the freedom to ride for himself.

So what would have happened had Almeida been given a free role from the start of the Giro? How much higher would he be on GC if he hadn’t had to work and wait for Evenepoel at various points in the race?

Let’s run the numbers and find out.

A quick disclaimer before we begin. It should go without saying that bike racing is an infinitely dynamic and unpredictable beast, with any number of variables that can affect the outcome of a given stage, let alone the overall standings after more than two weeks. Predicting how a race will unfold is a fraught business; likewise predicting what might have happened on a particular day, in a parallel universe.

So, what follows is simply a series of educated guesses. Still, it’s fun to make predictions and look at what might have been.

With all that out of the way, let’s see how Almeida might be going on GC, relative to Bernal, had Almeida been Deceuninck-QuickStep’s main man since the start.

Almeida moved up the GC on stage 16 after being in the early break.

Stage 1

Almeida was 22 seconds faster than Bernal in this individual time trial.

Stage vs Bernal: -0:22
GC vs Bernal: -0:22

Stage 2

Almeida finished on the same time as Bernal.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: -0:22

Stage 3

Same time again.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: -0:22

Stage 4

Almeida’s only real bad day of the Giro so far. After being dropped with about 5 km to go on the rain-drenched, stage-ending climb, Almeida lost more than four minutes to Bernal. Evenepoel managed to finish just behind Bernal.

Stage vs Bernal: +4:21
GC vs Bernal: +3:59

Stage 5

Almeida finished on the same time as Bernal.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: +3:59

Stage 6

Almeida rode the front for Evenepoel and dropped 28 seconds to Bernal once he’d done his work. Let’s be conservative and say that Almeida wasn’t as good as Evenepoel that day, and that, if he hadn’t had to work on the front, he instead would have finished behind his teammate, in the Simon Yates/Aleksandr Vlasov/Hugh Carthy group. That group finished 17 seconds behind Bernal, who took a six-second time bonus for finishing second on the stage.

Stage vs Bernal: +0:23
GC vs Bernal: +4:22

Stage 7

Almeida finished with the same time as Bernal.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: +4:22

Stage 8

Same time again.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: +4:22

Stage 9

Bernal won the stage 10 seconds ahead of Evenepoel and 12 seconds ahead of Almeida. Let’s say Almeida still finished 12 seconds down. With the 10-second time bonus, Bernal would have moved a further 22 seconds ahead.

Stage vs Bernal: +0:22
GC vs Bernal: +4:44

Stage 10

Same time.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: +4:44

Stage 11

This was the day the wheels fell off for Evenepoel. The young Belgian was dropped with about 20 km to go on the ‘Strade Bianche’ stage and looked like he was going to lose a bunch of time. Almeida was clearly feeling good and had to be told to drop back and work for Evenepoel, which he did after a noticeable delay. His quotes later to Portuguese media outlet A Bola were instructive:

“I felt good and with good feelings, I had the chance to [ride] with the best, but I had to follow the orders that came from the support car to wait for Remco,” he said. “Do I feel disappointed? I’d rather be silent than say what I think.”

Almeida and Evenepoel lost 2:08 to Bernal that day. Let’s say Almeida was able to finish with the Yates and Damiano Caruso group, 26 seconds after Bernal who attacked late.

Stage vs Bernal: +0:26
GC vs Bernal: +5:10

Stage 12

Almeida finished in the bunch with Bernal.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: +5:10

Stage 13

Same time again.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: +5:10

Stage 14

Almeida rode the Monte Zoncolan stage in support of Evenepoel, who finished 1:28 behind Bernal. Let’s again say that Almeida was good enough to stay with the likes of Yates while riding for his own chances. That would have put him 11 seconds behind Bernal on the day.

Stage vs Bernal: +0:11
GC vs Bernal: +5:21

Stage 15

Same time as Bernal.

Stage vs Bernal: Same
GC vs Bernal: +5:21

Stage 16

On a massive day that was shortened due to bad weather, Almeida got in the early breakaway and was one of six riders still up the road at the start of the final climb: the Passo Giau. He was caught by a rampaging Bernal 4 km from the summit, but went on to finish in sixth, 1:21 behind Bernal.

The question is, would Almeida have been allowed in the early break if he was 5:21 down at the start of the stage, rather than 8:32? Let’s be conservative and say that Ineos-Grenadiers didn’t let him up the road. In that case, he would have started the final climb in the same group as Bernal.

Again, let’s give him the same time as Yates – 2:37 behind Bernal, plus the 10-second bonus Bernal got for winning the stage. (This was the day Evenepoel lost 24 minutes and plummeted from seventh overall to 19th).

Stage vs Bernal: +2:47
GC vs Bernal: +8:08

Stage 17

Almeida went on the attack with 4 km to go and got a gap over Bernal. The race leader was able to close it down, but couldn’t respond when Almeida and Yates went clear about 600 metres later. Yates attacked but Almeida caught him, then Almeida attacked late to finish second on the stage.

Almeida crossed the line 1:10 ahead of Bernal, and also picked up a six-second time bonus.

Stage vs Bernal: -1:16
GC vs Bernal: +6:54

So where does that leave us? In the real world, Almeida is 8:45 behind Bernal after stage 17, in eighth place. In our parallel universe he’s 6:54 behind, putting him in seventh overall – just one place higher.

Almeida riding to second on stage 17.

Again, the above is just a series of educated guesses. Just about anything could have happened. And none of this is to say Deceuninck-QuickStep made a mistake by backing Evenepoel for GC and not giving Almeida a free role. They felt Evenepoel was their best option and they committed to that plan until it proved untenable.

Almeida can still improve his overall position too. He finished fourth overall last year and while matching that is probably a big ask from where he is, it’s not out of the question. Here’s how the top 8 looks at the moment:

  1. Egan Bernal
  2. Damiano Caruso +2:21
  3. Simon Yates +3:23
  4. Aleksandr Vlasov +6:03
  5. Hugh Carthy +6:09
  6. Romain Bardet +6:31
  7. Dani Martinez +7:17
  8. Joao Almeida +8:45

Nothing’s likely to change on the largely flat stage 18, but stages 19 and 20 both have uphill finishes so if he’s feeling good, Almeida could possibly make up more time there. And then there’s the 30 km final-stage ITT in Milan. Almeida will likely put time into all seven riders ahead of him that day, but the gaps likely won’t be measured in minutes.

Still, it looks like Almeida is on track to finish well inside the top 10 at the Giro for the second year in a row, and all as a 22-year-old, after shipping a huge chunk of time on stage 4, and after losing more time riding for Evenepoel. But as our little thought experiment shows, if he’s sitting in the team bus each day thinking “what if I didn’t have to ride for Remco?”, he doesn’t have to worry too much. The difference is probably just one spot on GC, and mostly because of the bad day he had in the wet on stage 4.

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