In his short career to date, Fabio Aru (Astana) has tended to save his best for the third week of Grand Tours and he will hope the same trend holds true for his Tour de France debut. The auguries from Mont Ventoux on stage 12 were certainly promising, as the Sardinian moved up to 8th overall at the end of a trying day personally and a tumultuous one for the race as a whole.
Aru was unable to join Richie Porte (BMC) and Bauke Mollema (Orica-GreenEdge) in tracking yellow jersey Chris Froome's fierce attack three kilometres from the summit, but he settled into a strong chasing group alongside Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) and battled to limit his losses.
Inside the final kilometre, Aru's group unexpectedly caught and passed Froome, who was brought down by a crash involving a television motorbike in the finale and forced to run along the road as he waited for a replacement bike. The Sardinian went on to place 12th at the finish at Chalet Reynard, just behind Yates.
Speaking to reporters as he warmed down past the finish line, Aru had no idea of what had happened to Froome – "I was 200 metres behind them, I didn't see anything" – but he declared himself satisfied with his showing.
"Today was very hard again, like every stage of this Tour. There was a lot of wind during the stage and again on the climb, it wasn't easy," said Aru, who had endured the misfortune of requiring two bike changes just as the wind-buffeted peloton was splitting into echelons on the flat, fast run-in to the foot of Mont Ventoux. He managed to latch back on, albeit with sufficient aid from his team car to warrant a fine from the commissaires on Thursday evening.
"Considering the extra efforts I had to make because of my mechanical problems, I can be satisfied. I think it was quite a good day for me in the end. It wasn't easy to get back on, but I had teammates with me when my bike broke and when there's harmony like that in the team, it makes things a bit more straightforward."
Aru crossed the finish line 1:21 ahead of Froome and initially moved to within 14 seconds of the Sky man in the provisional general classification issued immediately after the stage. Following lengthy deliberations, however, the commissaires decided to revise the standings and award Froome the same time as Mollema, meaning that he retains the overall lead, while Aru's deficit extends to 1:54.
Earlier in the week, Aru had put a positive sheen on the ground he conceded to Froome et al at Andorra-Arcalis four days ago, reasoning that limiting his losses to a minute on that trying day might feel like a minor victory by the time the Tour reaches Paris.
"Over the course of three weeks you're going to have days where you're not feeling really great, and the important thing is to hang tough and not throw in the towel," Aru told Cyclingnews in Carcassone on Wednesday. "The Tour is still long."
After a slow-burning opening week, potentially decisive stages come thick and fast in the second half of this race. With Mont Ventoux scarcely digested, the Tour peloton faces a demanding 37.5-kilometre time trial to La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc on Friday afternoon that ought to provoke sizeable gaps among the contenders. Despite his limitations against the watch, Aru was bullish about his prospects for the remainder of the Tour.
"I'm feeling quite good, you know," Aru said. "The harder stages are coming and you start to feel the fatigue now that we're twelve stages in. The last week is very hard and it's going to be important to get there fresh."