Aru on the up as Tour de France reaches its climax in the Alps
Sardinian places third in Megève time trial
There were still seven riders left to finish, but when Fabio Aru crossed the finish line in Megève, Astana directeur sportif Stefano Zanini knew already that his rider had posted one of the afternoon's best performances in Thursday's stage 18 time trial at the Tour de France.
Zanini had been following Vincenzo Nibali during the 17-kilometre test, but lingered beyond the finish area to wait for the Aru's arrival, and leant excitedly over the barriers to pass on his congratulations when the Sardinian soft-pedalled past.
At that point, Aru's was the second quickest time of the day, just 12 seconds behind Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), and of the seven riders who followed him home, only stage winner Chris Froome (Sky) would post a faster time.
"I was hoping to do well and I gave everything I had, right from the first kilometres," Aru told a group of reporters as UCI inspectors weighed his bike past the finish line. "We'll have to wait for the last riders, but I'm happy, dai."
Aru's performance in the predominantly uphill test was a marked improvement on his disappointing outing in the Ardèche time trial a week ago, and was arguably the finest showing against the watch of his career to date.
After opting to eschew a time trial bike, it was perhaps to be anticipated that Aru would show up well on the steep Côte de Domancy, and he clocked the 7th best time at the 6.5-kilometre mark. Yet as the gradient relaxed, Aru began to exceed expectation. He reached the 13.5-kilometre point with the fourth best time, 29 seconds down on Dumoulin, and he maintained his brisk tempo on the drop to Megève.
"I went out at full gas and I finished at full gas," Aru said of his approach, seemingly making light of the idea that this unusual time trial required a deal of tactical nuance.
"I was very disappointed by my showing in the first time trial, because I think I prepared quite well for this Tour with my teammates. We always said it was a question of giving everything right to the end. How it'll pan out, I don't know but the important thing is to give everything to the end."
- Tour de France: Froome wins mountain time trial to Megève
- Tour de France: Stage 18 finish line quotes
In finishing the stage in third place, 33 seconds behind Froome, but ahead of Richie Porte (BMC) and more than 30 seconds clear of Movistar's Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana, Aru moves up to 7th place overall with two tough Alpine stages still to come. Although he lies 6:08 off the unassailable Froome, he has now closed to within two minutes of a berth on the podium.
It will not have escaped Aru's attention that, Porte and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), the men ahead of him in the overall standings, gave the impression on Thursday that they are beginning to fade.
Aru, by contrast, has made a habit of delivering startlingly strong displays in the dying days of Grand Tours. He claimed back-to-back stage wins in the Alps in the final throes of last year's Giro d'Italia and then went on to win the Vuelta a España on the penultimate day, and he is unlikely to be daunted by the prospect of the two mountainous legs still to come.
"The main thing is to give everything to the end because in cycling you never know. The race is 21 stages long and in 21 stages you have to be very concentrated," Aru said. "There are two very important mountain stages to come and I'll give it my all and then I'll see how we are. However it goes, this Tour will have been a great experience, one that I had been missing. I'll come out of it a better rider."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.