Every five metres, in large white letters, the legend "Aru" was daubed across the narrow road that led out of Pratola Serra and up the Passo Serra, the final climb of stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia, an afternoon with scarcely a yard of flat that brought the curtain down on a breathless opening week.
The man of the hour was loath to disappoint such an expectant public. For the second time in as many days, Fabio Aru (Astana) launched a vicious attack on Alberto Contador's maglia rosa on the final climb, and though he couldn't dislodge the Spaniard by the summit, he did at least manage to claw back a second as they sprinted for 10th place over the other side in San Giorgio del Sannio.
Aru punched the air as he crossed the line, though not, he explained later, to celebrate as trifling a matter as cutting his overall deficit from four seconds to three ahead of the Giro’s first rest day. By that point, he said, he had thoughts only for the stage victory of his teammate and mentor, Paolo Tiralongo, who had soloed clear from the day’s early break to take the honours.
"No, no, no, it was because I found out with 500 metres to go that Paolo had won so I was celebrating that, and certainly not my sprint," Aru said between mouthfuls of a ham sandwich in the mixed zone afterwards. "Paolo's win today was very big emotion, I couldn't be happier if I had won myself. I was almost in tears."
After sending Tiralongo up the road early on, Astana had delegated Dario Cataldo to attack on the climb towards Lago Laceno in a further bid to wear out Contador's Tinkoff-Saxo guard. Aru's own, inevitable acceleration came on the steepest section of the short Passo Serra, with a shade under 15 kilometres left to race.
As has been the case throughout the opening week, Contador and Richie Porte (Sky) were swiftly across to his rear wheel, none of the so-called "Three Tenors" willing to cede an inch. And, as at Campitello Matese on Saturday, that trio had Astana's Mikel Landa for company, and they crested the summit of the climb together. "The team was exceptionally strong today," Aru said. "Landa did incredible work today, he’s a real champion."
The fast descent off the Passo Serra was followed by some rather unruly road surfaces on the approach to the finish, but rather than seek to put his two principal rivals into difficulty, Aru and Landa were keen to strike up a working alliance. With Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-QuickStep) distanced on the climb, it was a chance to put further time into him before next weekend's long time trial to Valdobbiadene, and Aru and Contador made their case to Porte.
"Porte wasn't collaborating at first, but then we convinced him because we explained that we could all gain on Uran, and after that we worked hard," Aru said. By day's end, they had all gained another 46 seconds on the Colombian.
Aru, indeed, tacked on another second of his own when he launched a sprint from distance on the uphill finishing straight and, for the first time all week, he put daylight between his rear wheel and Contador – or at least enough to satisfy the timekeepers. After conceding two seconds in bonuses on Saturday, it was surely a welcome boost to the 24-year-old's morale, though he downplayed its implications afterwards.
"My own sprint at the end wasn't to gain time, it was more about honouring this stage finish," he said. "It's important to excite the fans, because all of Italy has been very close to me this week. I've seen my name written on the road in so many places, in every region we've gone through. So I think it's important for me to give something back to this public and I'm trying to do that."
After the stage, the Giro caravan faced a four-hour trek up the Adriatic coast to the rest day town of Civitanova Marche, finally some respite from a frantic opening act. Contador's display over the weekend suggests that he has the wherewithal to cope with the dislocated shoulder he suffered three days, but Astana and Aru's startling aggression through the week has asked questions of his Tinkoff-Saxo team.
"It's been a tough week – well, nine days, in fact," Aru said. "Every day has been hard, the race has been stretched but finally tomorrow we've got a rest day and I'll hope to recover for the days to come."
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