In his 1st Grand Tour, Almeida keeps adding to his Giro lead

VALDOBBIADENE, Italy (AP) — First Grand Tour. First lengthy time trial. And first overall.

Portuguese rider João Almeida just keeps checking off new personal bests, the latest by increasing his grip on the pink jersey in the hilly 14th-stage time trial of the Giro d’Italia on Saturday.

The 22-year-old Almeida has held the lead since a strong effort up Mount Etna in Stage 3.

“We learn every day,” Almeida said. “We’ll see how I react for the last week.”

Only seven stages remain before the race ends in Milan next weekend with another individual time trial — although the final week is filled with grueling climbs through northern Italy and Almeida himself has acknowledged that he has no idea how his body will react to a third consecutive week of racing.

“I’m not afraid at all. I’ll just keep doing my race and we’ll see day by day,” he said. “So far I feel good. Today I felt good.”

Recently crowned world champion Filippo Ganna claimed his third victory in this year’s race. The Italian rode at an average speed of 48 kph (30 mph) along the 34.1-kilometer (21-mile) route through Prosecco vineyards from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene, clocking 42 minutes, 40 seconds.

The course included a brief but very steep climb shortly after the start, the Muro di Ca’ del Poggio. A 1.1-kilometer “wall,” the climb featured an average gradient of 12.3% with one section at 19%.

Fans — most of them wearing masks — crowded both sides of the road along the climb.

Ganna’s Ineos Grenadiers teammate Rohan Dennis finished second in the stage, 26 seconds behind, and American rider Brandon McNulty came third, 1:09 back.

Almeida — the last rider on the course — finished sixth, 1:31 behind Ganna. The Deceuninck-Quick Step rider now leads Wilco Kelderman by 56 seconds in the overall standings.

Pello Bilbao remained third overall, 2:11 behind, while McNulty moved up from 11th to fourth and trails by 2:23.

Two-time Giro champion Vincenzo Nibali is fifth, 2:30 back.

Of the top five in the standings, only McNulty finished ahead of Almeida in the time trial — and Almeida gained 16 seconds on Kelderman.

“I won more time than I expected,” Almeida said. “I was expecting to lose time to Kelderman — he’s a really good time trialist. … That’s really positive.”

The longest race that Almeida had previously competed in was the 10-day Baby Giro for under-23 riders in 2018. He finished second in that race.

“It was my longest time trial as well, so I don’t have a lot of experience with this,” Almeida said. “But I had a plan and in the end it paid off.”

Ganna also won the race-opening time trial in Palermo and then took Stage 5 with a solo victory.

Including Jhonatan Narváez’s victory in Stage 12, Ineos has now won four stages in this year’s race despite losing team leader Geraint Thomas to a broken pelvis in Stage 3.

“It wasn’t planned. When we had our captain we were expecting him (to win),” Ganna said. “It could have been an entirely different Giro. It’s been a good year for me. I’ve improved a lot.”

Before the stage began, race organizers announced that 512 coronavirus saliva tests performed on riders and team staff members all came back negative. The next round of tests will be carried out on the second rest day Monday.

Two full teams, Mitchelton-Scott and Jumbo-Visma, withdrew from the race Tuesday following a series of positive results from the first rest day. Overall contenders Simon Yates and Steven Kruijswijk were among those who tested positive and were withdrawn from the race, as well as Australian standout Michael Matthews.

As for the racing, another big test looms for Stage 15 on Sunday in a mountainous 185-kilometer (115-mile) leg from Codroipo to Piancavallo that concludes with a first-category climb.

The Giro was rescheduled from its usual May slot because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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