'Nothing crazy happened' – Vine keeps Almeida in the hunt at Giro d'Italia

 Best young riders white jersey UAE Team Emirates rider Joao Almeida rides with teammates during stage 18 of the Giro dItalia 2023
Best young riders white jersey UAE Team Emirates rider Joao Almeida rides with teammates during stage 18 of the Giro dItalia 2023

It could have gone a lot worse for João Almeida on stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia. If Jay Vine hadn't been there, it almost certainly would have. After shaking the race with his attack at Monte Bondone two days previously, Almeida found himself in the damage limitation business at Val di Zoldo. The Giro giveth and the Giro taketh away.

On Tuesday, Almeida's stage victory had lifted him ahead of Primoz Roglič and into second overall. Here, he conceded 21 seconds to the Slovenian and to maglia rosa Geraint Thomas after being distanced on the penultimate ascent of Coi, dropping to third overall at 39 seconds in the process.

Almeida remains in the hunt to win this race in Rome on Sunday, but the path to victory that opened up so invitingly 48 hours earlier has now narrowed and steepened considerably. In the mixed zone afterwards, someone asked if the three men atop the overall standings still held similar chances of claiming the Trofeo Senza Fine. Almeida shook his head.

"I think Geraint is looking very good and Primož also," Almeida said. "I think the percentages are a little bit bigger for them."

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The first instalment of the Giro's three-part finale in the mountains saw some unexpected early frissons when Roglič was very briefly distanced by a split on the Passo della Crosetta, but the true separation would come on the penultimate ascent of Coi. At this point in the Giro, the difference is made by pedalling rather than positioning.

As the gradient ratcheted into the double-digits, Almeida was unable to withstand the pace laid down by Sepp Kuss for his Jumbo-Visma teammate Roglič. Thomas and Eddie Dunbar (Jayco-Alula) were able to follow, while Almeida was forced into the umpteenth fightback of his Giro career.

In the mountains over the years, Almeida has pulled off more remontadas than Real Madrid, often alone. This time out, he had precious company in his UAE Team Emirates comrade Vine, who worked to stitch the race back together on the upper reaches of Coi. The Australian almost succeeded, too, dragging his leader back to within sight of the pink jersey group as they crested the summit with a little over 5km to go.

"João was telling me when to slow down and when to speed up," Vine said. "I think he did really well to limit the losses."

Over the other side, however, Almeida's challenge almost unravelled altogether when Vine overshot a corner. Vine, mercifully, avoided crashing, but the incident would leave Almeida alone for the final kick to the line. A gap that looked to be shrinking would open once again in the closing 3km haul to the finish.

"I think it was pretty hard for me today, I wasn't feeling great. My team did a perfect job, and they saved the gap a bit to the other guys, so I'm very thankful to Jay," Almeida said.

"But it's OK. Nothing crazy happened, it's cycling. At the end of the day, it's not too bad."

Vine showed 'fantastic character' says Gianetti

After completing his shift for Almeida, Vine was able to soft-pedal on the climb to Val di Zoldo, mindful of the need to spare something for Friday's Dolomite tappone to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where, one senses, his shepherding services will again be in demand. He started this Giro with designs on a high overall finish of his own, but circumstances – namely, the frozen descent of the Passo delle Radici on stage 10 – saw him repurposed as a luxury gregario in the second half of the race.

When Vine wheeled to a halt amid the maelstrom of camera crews, support staff and race vehicles beyond the finish, UAE Team Emirates manager Mauro Gianetti made a point of pressing his way through the crowds to seek him out. "The character you showed today, fantastic," he said, while a soigneur issued directions to the team bus back down the mountainside.

"Maybe if I hadn't nearly crashed, we could have limited it a bit more. A lesson learned," Vine said of the 21 seconds lost by Almeida. "But I think João rode amazingly, and we'll go again tomorrow. There are much more climbing metres, it's at high altitude and there will be way more calories in the legs tomorrow."

Almeida's powers of recovery have been a calling card during his Giro career to date, but they will be tested like never before on Friday's mammoth stage. The 24-year-old certainly can't afford to ship any more time before the stage 20 Monte Lussari time trial, even if he suggested it would be premature to make calculations about that test.

"It's all in the legs, so that's the big question," Almeida said. "Anything can happen."