No one can say that Fabio Aru (Astana) did not do his utmost to dislodge race leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) on the first of three key mountain stages in the Vuelta a Espana's final week. But it was not to be.
The Italian climber launched one surging attack after another, and the combined climbing efforts by both Aru and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) - also on an extremely good day - managed to shred the front group to eight or 10 favourites. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) looked to be a little more uncomfortable than the rest of the contenders. But on each occasion, whenever Aru looked back, Dumoulin was stubbornly sticking to his back wheel, "which must have been demoralizing," as Dumoulin observed later.
Then as the group roared over the summit and onto the descent, despite Nairo Quintana (Movistar) launching a strong downhill drive, neither Aru nor Dumoulin came unstuck. Four kilometres from the line, Dumoulin's confidence and strength was such that he even briefly gapped the Italian, but it was more a symbolic gesture to show that for all Aru's best efforts, the Dutchman remained in control of the race lead.
"It was a nice battle, great for the public to see, and it's going to be hard to pull back those three seconds," Astana sports director Stefano Zanini said later about Aru’s performance. “Dumoulin is still in fantastic shape and he responded every time. But we still have two days left to try.
"The climb was hard at the beginning and had some tough sections, but Dumoulin was very good and able to respond."
Eleventh on the stage, Aru was somewhat more optimistic than his sports director, saying he had "tried his best, and I wanted to isolate Dumoulin and put him in difficulties. The team collectively rode very well today."
"Today was maybe not the best day to try it, the third of these mountain stages [on Saturday] is the hardest. And three seconds is nothing." However, unless Aru manages to pry Dumoulin off his wheel, those three seconds could end up being what tips the balance in the Dutchman's favour in Madrid.
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