Ineos Grenadiers may have won the most stages at the 2020 Giro d'Italia so far with five, but trailing them with four victories and currently leading the race is the collected alumni of the sport's most successful development team: Hagens Berman Axeon.
As the Italian Grand Tour resumes following its second and final rest day, Portuguese João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quick Step) leads the race by 15 seconds from Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb). The same 22-year-old neo-pro Almeida who was racing for the Axel Merckx-led Hagens Berman Axeon just last year.
Sitting in fourth place and just a second off Sunweb's Jai Hindley in third is stage 15 winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, in his fourth year at Ineos Grenadiers having come to promise in his two seasons riding under Merckx's tutelage.
"It's been fun to watch," Merckx tells Cycling Weekly. "Four stages in a week and the maglia rosa, it's brought attention to what we've been doing the past 12 years. Win after win, one after the other, I guess it proves that we've been doing the right things."
Has he had a favourite victory? "That's like asking me to pick a favourite child," he laughs. "They are five guys with five different personalities, showing different ways of winning."
With just six stages left, the question everyone is asking is can Almeida go on to record a surprising overall victory in his maiden Grand Tour, and if not, can Geoghegan Hart get the better of Kelderman, the de facto favourite?
The case for Almeida
The Portugal rider's performances have shocked himself - he claimed after Sunday's stage 15 it would almost impossible for him to win outright - but Merckx believes that the rider who has already finished on the podium in two separate stage races post-lockdown possesses an attribute that could aid him in his unlikely quest.
"Last year at the Tour of Utah (Almeida finished fourth, and won the youth classification - ed), I was really impressed with how he handled it and he got better and better. In the Baby Giro the year before, he finished second and get stronger each day. How he recovers is impressive.
"João has the capacities of recuperation of a Grand Tour rider, whether that's enough for him to get a podium the years will determine. Basically, whoever is the less tired after three weeks is what makes the difference in a Grand Tour.
"He lost some time on Sunday, but who's to say that Kelderman won't have a bad day? The Giro is always the race of suspense until the last day and it won't be any different this year."
On the finishing slopes to Piancavallo on Sunday, the TV cameras spotted Almeida removing his ear piece. "I wasn't surprised when I saw that because he really doesn't like people yelling in his ear, encouraging him," Merckx adds.
"What I know about him is that stress doesn't affect him. He is really, really calm and composed. In the Baby Giro, I came across to him in the car to try and encourage him and he just stared back at me and said 'please, don't talk to me'. He is really focused on doing what he is doing and knowing why he is doing it."
The case for Geoghegan Hart
Briton's Geoghegan Hart, 25, has been a regular name in our magazine for almost a decade, showing promise as a junior and continuing to do so ever since. But he, like Almeida, is an unknown package when it comes to targeting the GC in a Grand Tour, even if most commentators now view the race as a two-up shootout between him and Kelderman.
What the Hackney rider has in his favour is a wise head, undoubted quality in the high mountains and being free of pressure. "Of all the riders I have had in my program, Tao is one of the smartest tactically," Merckx says.
"He is a great talent: very smart, an intelligent young rider with a lot of knowledge about cycling. He is very opinionated, but also most of the time he is right.
"He's very strong tactically, but also physically. The way he won that stage was truly impressive and he looked very comfortable. It's a really good sign for what is coming next - he just has to stay calm and healthy.
"When you're in his position with uphill finishes to come, you have to have the ambition to go for the podium. Physically, you can see that he is not cracking and is getting better and better.
"He hasn't had the pressure of the last two weeks beside his own. He is in great shape and he has the maturity to go for a podium place. He has nothing to lose and everything he takes is a bonus right now.
"He has to let Kelderman do all the work to try and get the pink jersey from João and then follow and strike when the time is right to make the difference. Or, if he sees a crack in one of his rivals, he has to try and go for it."
If Geoghegan Hart does secure a top-three finish or even better the overall victory, how does Merckx expect him to react? "After the first three wins for the riders on the program, I text him saying he was next on the list. We had a good laugh about it and then when he won I text him saying I told you so!
"I also messaged his agent and joked with him that maybe Tao would be happy for five seconds and not angry! He is very impatient and never satisfied with his results, but he has to be happy with what he's doing right now."
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