Aru loses Tour de France lead after 'being too far back' in stage 14 finale
'We've lost a battle, but not the war,' says Astana team management
Poor positioning by Fabio Aru (Astana) on the tricky stage 14 uphill finish in Rodez has cost the Italian champion his overall lead in the Tour de France, with the coveted yellow jersey passing back to Chris Froome (Team Sky) once more.
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French TV commentator and former pro Laurent Jalabert pointed out repeatedly that there was no sign of Aru near the front of the race as the peloton hurtled down towards Rodez and its short, punchy final ascent. As the camera swept back along the strung-out bunch, there was no sign of the Sardinian-born rider anywhere in the front 40 riders.
He next appeared on the TV screens crossing the line in 30th place, 25 seconds down on stage winner Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and, crucially, 24 seconds down on Froome. In less than a kilometre - just like at Peyragudes, where Froome had all but disintegrated on the final ascent to the runway finish line - the GC standings see-sawed back in favour of the Briton by a margin of 18 seconds. Still not much, but triple the size of Aru's lead for the previous 48 hours.
There was much speculation on French TV, too, as to whether Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov had deliberately instructed Aru to stay well back in the hope that Aru would lose the yellow jersey by the minimum time possible. That way, so the theory went, Aru and the Kazakh squad would force Team Sky to spend more energy en route to the final showdown in the Alps and at the Marseille time trial.
If so, the unconfirmed tactic went decidedly awry, given how much time Froome gained on the Italian, and certainly Aru did not appear to be in any way delighted at having lost his lead.
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Instead, after crossing the finish line looking more exhausted than might have been expected following his show of strength in the Pyrenees, and then learning how much time he had lost, Aru promptly rode all the way to the Astana team bus. He then only talked to journalists after he had begun his warm-down on the trainer.
Clearly disappointed, having said his piece, warmed down, showered and then changed into team-issue dark-blue kit, Aru opted to skip an invitation to France 2's post-stage analysis program and got straight in the front seat of an Astana team car to head to the team's hotel.
Aru's conversation with journalists from his trainer was short and to the point. He got his positioning wrong on the approach to the climb, when he had been on the wrong side of a split before the climb, and paid a price for it. Concurring with the team management, he said he did not think it was going to change matters greatly, but he had no intention of losing the maillot jaune either.
"In the last kilometre, it was already falling apart. I had to make too big an effort to get back on to the group. I got caught out," he recognised.
"Today it happened to me, tomorrow it could happen to somebody else. This is what happens sometimes in races. The important thing is, at the end of the day, to be able to fight on."
Asked by one Italian journalist whether tactically making Sky do the donkey work across the Massif Centrale and into the Alps might be a plus, Aru partly dodged the issue by playing up the idea there will be plenty of opportunities for him to strike back.
"Logically, I'd prefer to have the lead, but this is going to be a very tough final week and so not everything is lost," he said. "There aren't just a few seconds difference now between me and Froome, but there aren't not so many either, so the Tour is still wide open. [Sunday] will be a very hard stage, so we'll try and recover today, then a rest day, which is important."
Astana director Dimitri Fofonov told French TV his team had worked hard throughout the day.
"There was a cross-wind, and to keep energy, you have to be ahead, protected," he said. "At the line, we quickly learned there had been splits."
Fofonov argued that "we've lost a battle but not the war," and regardless of whom is in yellow, in a second week that has seemed more like skirmishing than an all-or-nothing attack, neither Froome nor Aru have opened up a significant margin on the other.
However, the weakened state of Aru's team was painfully obvious on the second stage of the Pyrenees, and as a result of the Italian's defeat at Rodez, the pressure of leadership has returned to Sky. For those playing a long game in a Tour where there is no predicting the outcome, that may be no small matter.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.