Fabio Aru is rarely a man to give much away, but the sight of Astana teammates Dario Cataldo and Luis Leon Sanchez driving at the front of the red jersey group on the seemingly interminable haul up the Alto de Capileira on stage 7 of the Vuelta a España was something of a tell.
Even so, the ferocity of Aru’s attack with 1,500 metres remaining still startled. Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) had already tested the waters, but the Sardinian seemed to have found a different current when he launched his own effort.
Though Aru would only gain seven seconds by the finish line – due in part, perhaps, to a finale that was not quite as steep as advertised in the road book – his acceleration did plunge Chris Froome (Team Sky) into difficulty. The Tour de France winner was scarcely able to steady the ship, and conceded 34 seconds to Aru by the finish.
On crossing the line, a soigneur navigated Aru through the carnage of the finish area and to a safe haven further up the mountain. By the time a group of reporters arrived on the scene, Aru already had a towel around his neck and was being helped into a long sleeve jersey, ready for a quick getaway.
“Ah, it’s the first summit finish and I was looking for some answers,” Aru said simply after catching his breath. “I haven’t been feeling great since the crash [on stage 2 – ed.] and I wasn’t great on the shorter climbs but now I’m recovering and that’s good. Now we’ll just look to recover for the stages to come.”
Though only in his third year as a professional, Aru has already been at this game more than long enough to side-step the kind of questions that can turn into unwanted headlines. Asked what he made of putting more than half a minute into Froome, he gave a non-committal response that segued into answering a question that hadn’t even been put to him. Gianni Bugno would have approved.
“I haven’t seen the classification yet but I’m just thinking about my own race to be honest. We’ll see,” Aru said. “This is a beautiful Vuelta, really tough and I really like racing in Spain so we’ll try to do well.”
A couple of more attempts to dredge for an answer of more depth came up empty. On and off the bike, Aru gives nothing away easily. “I gave everything today and we’ll see in the coming days,” he said, and then: “I tried today and I did my own race.”
Aru’s attack was not enough to land stage honours – he would place third behind early escapees Bert-Jan Lindeman (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Ilia Koshevoy (Lampre-Merida) – but it does elevate him to 8th place on general classification, 57 seconds down on Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
The acceleration may also have been sufficient to settle any lingering doubts as to the balance of power on the Astana team at this Vuelta. Before the race, Aru was placed at the top of the hierarchy with Vincenzo Nibali, but following the latter’s expulsion on stage 2, Mikel Landa seemed to rise by default to a position of co-leadership.
In the searing heat of Andalusia on Friday afternoon, however, Landa wilted under the force of Aru’s attack, crossing the line 34 seconds down in the same group as Froome. Landa is now 14th overall, 42 seconds behind Aru.
“My legs were complaining a bit and the rhythm was very high, but we gained some time with Aru and he’s taken a step forward,” Landa said on crossing the line. “I did what I could today but like yesterday it was very hot and where I live it’s a lot cooler.”
Aru and Landa fought out something of an unspoken leadership contest at the Giro d’Italia, and while the Basque held the upper hand in the debate for much of the final week, team orders on the road to Sestriere on the penultimate stage ensured that he would eventually have to settle for third overall, while Aru took second. At this Vuelta, meanwhile, Landa has been careful to endorse Aru’s leadership bid from the outset.
“Aru is the leader. After the Giro d’Italia, that was clear,” he said on Friday. “I don’t think I’ll have so many opportunities. But if I can go for the overall, I will.”