Fabio Aru crossed the finish line in Lugano alongside Alberto Contador, safely in the peloton but with the pain and suffering of Tuesday's stage to Aprica still in his legs and still fresh in his mind.
Aru slipped to third overall after being dropped on the Mortirolo and is now 4:52 down on Contador and 50 seconds behind teammate and supposed domestique Mikel Landa. Worryingly for Aru and the Astana team, Andrey Amador (Movistar) is only 56 seconds back and could knock the Sardinian off the podium during the final mountain stages.
Aru has never looked for excuses during his difficult moments at the Giro d'Italia but has toned down his hopes and objectives for the final stages of the Giro, giving the impression he would be happy to hang onto his place on the final podium in Milan.
"It was a huge effort yesterday, I did something like 40km on my own. To be honest I suffered like crazy but tried to focus on losing as little as possible," he explained after pulling on the best young rider's white jersey yet again.
"Today was a lot easier than yesterday but it was not easy because of the wind in the valley. We still went quite hard because of the break and because lots of people wanted to have a go in the sprint. I'm still a little tired after going deep yesterday but I haven't given up mentally. I think my mental ability is one of my strengths. When you have some physical problems, that’s when things get difficult but I fought all the way to the finish in Aprica and I'm determined to fight on in this Giro."
Trying to stay on the podium, trying to stay optimistic
Aru appears to be paying the price for the stomach virus that caused him to lose five kilogrammes and miss the Giro del Trentino, his final race before the Giro d'Italia. His rivals saw signs of his weakness early in the Giro and Contador cruelly exposed them on the stages to Imola and Vicenza before taking back the pink jersey with determination in the long time trial to Valdobbiadene.
Aru's clear lack of power and form in the mountains has forced him to let Mikel Landa take over team leadership in the Giro d'Italia even if Astana's roster was built around Aru. Second and third overall behind Contador is good result for the Astana team after all their licence problems with the UCI but it's clearly not the result they were hoping for.
Parts of the Italian media suggested that Landa should have stayed loyal to Aru and helped him on the Mortirolo instead of going away with Contador. Others have suggested that Astana made a mistake by attacking when Contador had a puncture. Aru does not agree.
"I think we played the right tactic," he argued.
"Mikel was on a good day and showed it by winning the stage, I was the one who suffered and paid for it. There's been a lot of talk about the attack when Alberto had punctured but we were in the middle of the descent at the time and so nobody really knew what was going on. We only really followed the Katusha team who went for it.
"It's not about who is the team leader, it's about legs. Mikel is going really well, he's second overall, so it's right he gets to play his cards and see what happens."
Aru tried to appease the Italian media by refusing to surrender to Contador but carefully avoided promising to go on the attack and put his podium place at risk.
"For sure we'll try to invent something and sees what happens," he said vaguely.
"We've raced hard for 17 stages and now there are three tough mountain stages to come. We've never really had time to catch our breaths and I'm sure we'll go hard on the last three days as well, before the Giro finishes in Milan.
"I'm focused on the final mountain stags now but even the last climb before the finish in Verbania tomorrow is pretty tough too. If I've got the legs, I'd like to give it a go in the mountains, especially on the Colle delle Finestre. I raced cyclo-cross when I was young and so I like dirt tracks. But it all depends on how my legs are feeling."
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