In the pleasant sunshine of La Spezia on Wednesday morning, Astana manager Giuseppe Martinelli had envisaged a relatively low-key outing for the overall contenders on stage 5 of the Giro d'Italia following two tougher than anticipated days on the Riviera.
This Giro, however, has defied prediction since the peloton left Sanremo at the weekend, and the final climb to Abetone proved more selective than anybody had imagined. Even so, there was little surprise about the trio of riders who proved the strongest on the Tuscan ascent, as Fabio Aru (Astana), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Richie Porte (Sky) matched one another pedal stroke for pedal stroke in the finale.
After Aru sparked the attacking on Tuesday, this time around it was Contador himself who seized the initiative by unfurling a vicious attack with 5.5 kilometres remaining. Porte and Aru bridged up to him and, not to be outdone, promptly unleashed accelerations of their own.
Aru had help from his teammate Mikel Landa, an earlier attacker, in the closing kilometres, but though he couldn't rid himself of his two companions – nor could he catch stage winner Jan Polanc (Lampre-Merida) - he took the sprint for third place to claim four bonus seconds and move up to second on general classification, just two seconds down on Contador.
"I'm happy, dai," Aru said after being hemmed in by a determined platoon of camera crews at the summit. "It was a real battle and it was great for the public and the tifosi to see a battle between such great champions, and to find myself in the midst of all of that was a great emotion. I've worked so hard for so long for this, and I'm happy. My team was exceptional again. Landa in the finale especially, he really outdid himself, and I can only congratulate him."
Aru briefly broke away from the scrum to offer his thanks to teammate Dario Cataldo, who himself landed 7th on the stage to climb to 5th overall. For the second day running, Aru's Astana team had taken matters in hand, imposing a fierce tempo on the lower slopes of Abetone before sending first Diego Rosa and then Landa up the road in pursuit of the early escapees.
"It wasn't planned but on the final climb we talked among ourselves and looked at our rivals, and we said 'ok, let's roll,'" Cataldo told Cyclingnews. "It all happened in a moment. I'm not sure exactly what the time gaps are after that but I think we did a good job.
"A lot of people were talking about a quiet day today but a summit finish is never tranquillo. We were expecting a real battle today."
For the third successive day, one of those thorny old clichés was bandied about at the finish. “Did the real Giro start with Contador's attack?" a television reporter asked Aru hopefully. Quite reasonably, the Sardinian was of the opinion that the race had in fact begun five days ago in Sanremo.
"It already started on Saturday with the team time trial. You saw yesterday and the other day and again today, it's been a lot of spettacolo on the climbs and the climbs," Aru said. "Contador and Porte are great riders, who have proved their ability by winning some big races. I'm here to do as well as I can. We’ll see how well I can do but I’ve got a lot of respect for them."
Aru, Contador and Porte gained more 28 seconds on Rigoberto Uran and they now occupy the top three places on the overall classification. The evidence so far suggests that the same trio could still be in situ come the finish in Milan in two and a half weeks' time, but in his brief career to date, Aru has shown himself to be a master of the delicate art of dampening expectation.
"We'll see, there are still 16 stages to go. We have to keep concentrating and keep recovering well and then we'll see," Aru said carefully.
Moments later Aru used that same non-committal phrase – "We'll see" – to deftly evade an invitation to appear on RAI television's post-race analysis show, Processo alla Tappa, sparing himself the dubious pleasure of sharing a platform with Mario Cipollini, on hand to offer judgment now that the Giro has entered Tuscany.
At least in theory, the next two stages to Castiglione della Pescaia and Fiuggi ought to be rather calmer affairs. But no matter what the rest of the opening week brings, the notion that the stage 14 time trial marks the first major rendezvous of the race has been dispelled.
"Nobody expected three days as tough as this, but when the race is on you have to accept it and give it everything," Cataldo said as he prepared to ride back down the climb to his team bus. “Maybe people will pay the consequences of these efforts later in the race, in the third week, because it's been very, very hard. But it's going to be the same for everybody."