Stage wins are Deceuninck Quick-Step's bread and butter when it comes to Grand Tours. Julian Alaphilippe may have transformed himself into a yellow jersey contender in 2019 but he did so while winning stages, the French world champion with five Tour triumphs (on top of three stints in yellow and the polka dot jersey) to his name in the past three editions.
In this Giro, and seemingly from nowhere, Deceuninck Quick-Step are holding all the cards. Entering a key weekend of the race – with Saturday's 34km time trial followed by Sunday's decisive day in the Dolomites – Joao Almeida sits on top of the pack, having extended his lead over all his rivals by six seconds in Monselice.
But, almost two weeks in, Patrick Lefevere's team are one of sixteen still without a stage win in Italy
It's hard to find fault with Almeida in what is proving to be a near flawless maiden Grand Tour. The 22-year-old came second in the opening time trial and moved into pink on day three in the first summit finish of the race on Mount Etna.
Since then he has twice sprinted to third place to pick up four bonus seconds on each occasion, making up for his slight loss of time on the second summit finish at Roccaraso.
Almeida has been remarkably consistent, never once finishing below 25th place. But on Friday's Stage 13 he had a gilt-edge chance to win a first stage for Quick-Step in this Giro. And he fluffed it.
With three teammates – Mikkel Honore, James Knox and Fausto Masnada – in the lead group of 20 riders, Deceuninck Quick-Step really held all the cards. But Almeida came up against an ace in Diego Ulissi, and the Italian pipped the Portuguese tyro to take his second win of the race.
A bittersweet day, then, saw Almeida add another six bonus seconds in his pursuit of pink, but fail to pull the trigger after his team pretty much laid it on a plate for him. And on that mixed metaphor, it goes without saying that there's another Quick-Step rider who should have been making his own Grand Tour debut in this race who wouldn't have made the same mistake.
Remco Evenepoel was in sparkling form this season both before and after the pause brought about by the first wave of the coronavirus crisis. A stage winner and overall winner in all four of his stage races this season, Evenepoel's debut Giro was the most eagerly anticipated in cycling. There were some who even predicted that the 20-year-old would outdo the great Fausto Coppi and become the youngest ever winner of La Corsa Rosa.
That's all conjecture. We'll never know – and winning a three-week Grand Tour is very different that the Tour de Pologne. But one thing is practically certain: Evenepoel would probably have won at least two stages by now. What's more, his likely role as Quick-Step's man for the GC could well have freed up the exciting Almeida to get on the scoresheet himself, too.
Everything that the Belgian superstar had done this season – up until the point he went over the ramparts of a bridge during Il Lombardia to bring the curtain down on his year – suggests he would have got the better of the veteran Italian Ulissi in that sprint.
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Given his track record – winning the European Continental Championships ITT in 2019 ahead of a field including Filippo Ganna; beating Ganna again in the San Juan TT this January – Evenepoel could well have been the debutant in pink on day one, not the Italian from Ineos Grenadiers.
And given the kind of rider Evenepoel is, it's probably fair to say that Arnaud Demare probably wouldn't have been able to fight back on to win Stage 6 to Matera, while Peter Sagan's drought may not have ended in Tortoreto after that succession of climbs in a Stage 10 which had the new Merckx's name written all over it.
Make no mistake, Deceuninck Quick-Step are having a wonderful race. With Italian climber Masnada also in the top 10 and about to enter his favoured terrain, there's still good reason to think that they won't go away empty handed.
The way the team are riding, though, is not that of a team looking to win stages, but one defending the maglia rosa tooth and nail, with Almeida picking up seconds here and there and everywhere. But a race featuring the Stelvio and the Colle dell'Agnello in the last week is not a race that's going to be won by seconds.
Provided the Giro makes it to Milan – and that is a big if – then there still remains 50 per cent of all the climbing. Starting with Sunday's showdown on Monte Cavallo. All the long and tough climbs are still to come – climbs which won't inspire the same kind of GC stalemate as those so far.
When the GC big guns finally come out to play, Almeida may find himself coming up short – and then his team may regret having seemingly prioritised a pink jersey push rather than the stage wins which usually define a team like Quick-Step. Watching the Giro from home, there's a certain Belgian who will be ruing the fact that he couldn't run riot on this race. It's a regret most fans are feeling, too.