What Alexandre Vinokourov wants, Alexandre Vinokourov seems to get, at least these days. The Astana general manager returned to the Giro d’Italia on Friday in time to witness Fabio Aru’s stage victory atop Cervinia, and he was on hand with representatives from the Kazakhstani squad’s backers to see the Sardinian repeat the feat at Sestriere a day later.
Barely a month on from the UCI Licence Commission’s decision to uphold its WorldTour status despite last year’s spate of doping cases, Astana has landed five stage victories at the Giro, dominated the team classification and placed two of its riders – Aru and Mikel Landa – on the podium. From out of the WorldTour to out of this world, as it were.
For a delirious few minutes over the top of Colle delle Finestre and even on the final haul to Sestriere itself, it briefly seemed as though Astana might even pull off the most improbable heist of all and snatch away Giro victory from Alberto Contador at the death.
Contador was sent backwards when Landa accelerated fiercely on the dirt road six kilometres from the summit, and he reached the top with a deficit of 1:30 to the Basque. Aru was in the group that bridged across to Landa at the base of the final climb, where Contador was continuing to struggle and the gap continued to grow. Ultimately, however, Contador limited the damage to come home 2:28 down on Aru, and remain 2:02 clear in the overall standings.
“Mikel made a really exceptional attack, he made the difference,” Aru said. “Then when Alberto was dropped, I was on the wheel of [Ryder] Hesjedal and [Rigoberto] Urán. When I heard the gap to Contador was growing I started working too.”
Landa had demonstrated himself to be stronger than Aru for much of the final week and seemed to have assumed team leadership when he went clear on the Mortirolo on stage 16. In the finale at Sestriere, however, the hierarchy was clear. Landa prepared the ground and then Aru – seemingly transfigured after his travails earlier in the race – jumped clear with two kilometres remaining to win the stage on familiar ground. Despite the cold, snowy conditions here throughout the spring, the Sardinian chooses to base himself here for some of his lengthy stints of altitude training.
“I’ve got a very good relationship with Mikel,” Aru said, dismissing the idea that there were internecine tensions on the team. “We ride well together and he behaved very well on this Giro. I’ll always remember where he waited for me on the Mortirolo for 6 or 7 kilometres even though I didn’t have the legs that day. And then he followed Contador and went on to win the stage. He’s a great champion.
“Today we spoke on the Finestre, and he made an incredible attack. We’re both Astana riders. We weren’t thinking about our own places, we were thinking about doing a great job for the team. Today shows you that, ok, we both have personal ambitions, but above all we’re a team.”
Throughout this Giro and again in his post-stage press conference, Contador has been careful to heap generous praise upon Aru, who has returned the compliment by describing the Spaniard as something of a model. The bonhomie was doused briefly when Aru was asked if Contador had killed him with kindness by reinforcing a sort of inferiority complex.
“No, absolutely not,” Aru said. “When I had the legs to attack him, I didn’t hold back. But Alberto’s not just a great champion, he’s a great person, as I found when I got talking to him during the Vuelta last year. He has shown a lot of respect to me, and when I’m given respect by people, I return that respect. That’s important in sport and in life.”
Aru’s late resurgence and his reduced final deficit to Contador will also only heighten home laments at the sheer length of the Valdobbiadene time trial last week, where he surrendered the pink jersey and lost almost three minutes to the Spaniard.
“I think doing such a long time trial was a big experience that will help me in the future,” Aru said. “You’ll all have noticed that I’ve got a lot of room for improvement in that department, and I’ll work on the particulars with my coaches and trainers. But I’m still happy to the have done that time trial.”
Tour de France
While Tinkoff-Saxo owner Oleg Tinkov jubilantly celebrated Alberto Contador’s impending overall victory by punching the air amid the photographers in the pit directly below the podium, Vinokourov stood discreetly observing the scene at a safe distance from the Prosecco spray and pink ticker tape. Later cornered by a RAI television crew, Vinokourov noted that he would now like Aru to turn his attentions to riding this year’s Tour de France alongside defending champion Vincenzo Nibali.
“We’ll see how he recovers, but I’d like to select him in France too,” Vinokourov said. “Fabio needs to gain experience and to start getting to know the Tour. He could aim for the white jersey there too.”
Astana’s current programme has Aru scheduled to ride the Vuelta a España rather than the Tour, but the local press were hopeful Vinokourov’s words might trigger a sort of latter-day Chiavari pact, and thrust Nibali and his fellow countryman together in July. Sensibly, Aru opted to play a straight bat when the question was put to him in his post-stage press conference.
“We’ll think about tomorrow’s stage first, then I’ll talk with Vino and the team directors and we’ll decide the programme,” Aru said, mindful, no doubt, that what Alexandre Vinokourov wants, Alexandre Vinokourov seems to get.