Ans, Belgium - In just his seventh race of the season riding for the Hagens Berman Axeon Cycling Team, João Almeida executed a late solo attack from a 10-rider breakaway to claim the team’s seventh victory of the season at the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Almeida is the second rider in the history of the program to win the classic race after Logan Owen won in 2016.
“Did I win?” thought Almeida as he crossed the line. “I won?! I won! One word, unbelievable!!! This is a dream! Two dreams of mine coming true in one year, joining this team and winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège!”
According to sport director Koos Moerenhout, the team had multiple plans for the day. Will Barta and Ivo Oliveira were the protected riders for the day. If a breakaway happened, the riders were instructed to be involved. Once covered, those in the main group could remain comfortable.
Almeida and teammate Jonny Brown followed Moerenhout’s instructions, joining 12 other riders in a breakaway that escaped the main group after 60 km of racing on the 173 km route from Bastogne to Ans. The grouped worked together for a majority of the day until French rider Alexys Brunel (CC Etupes) attacked from the break. Brunel’s escape was swift and he quickly built up a lead on the break by almost one minute.
“While Jonny and I were in the break, we worked hard, probably harder than everyone,” said Almeida. “We believed we could do it, we could make it stick, and give ourselves a chance in the end.”
The breakaway was trimmed down to ten riders in pursuit of Brunel. With less than 10 km remaining until the finish, when it seemed like Brunel might stay away, Almeida made his first move, attacking from the hard pushing break, catching Brunel. Andrea Bagioli (Team Colpack) bridged up to Almeida and Brunel to make it three. As Moerenhout put it, “then João did his thing.”
“In the descent with about 6 km left, I got some separation and I kept pushing,” said Almeida. “Then the gap started to increase. I caught the rider [Brunel] in front on the last climb and then it was a ‘sufferfest’ until the finish line. I was like, I have to win! Push! Push!!!”
Moerenhout and team mechanic Eric Fostvedt were in the dark driving the team car to the finish as race radio reported that the Brunel and Bagioli caught Almeida as the riders entered the velodrome.
But Brunel and Bagioli never caught Almeida, as they entered the velodrome or at the line. Almeida, telling himself that he had to win, to push, push, PUSH, did just that. He won the biggest race of his career.
“Even if you don’t think you are super… if you are in the race, in the front, anything is possible,” said Moerenhout. “And João is definitely somebody who could pull it off, but he needed to make it happen himself. And so he did.”
Brown went on to finish in a season’s best 14th, followed by Oliveira in 20th, Jasper Philipsen in 65th, Barta in 66th, and Zeke Mostov in 76th.
The team is back in action at Tour of the Gila in New Mexico on April 18th while the European squad lines up for Arno Wallaard Memorial on April 21st.
(Header image of João Almeida by Joyce Jason Ghijs)