Four months after he briefly held the leader's jersey in the Giro d'Italia, Fabio Aru (Astana) claimed the top spot overall in a Grand Tour once again in the Vuelta a Espana on Wednesday after a devastating mountain ride to Cortals d'Encamp.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) had forecast Aru would make his move on Wednesday's ultra hard stage and pointed to the young Italian's relative freshness compared to those riders who had done the Tour-Vuelta double.
The Colombian was proved 100 percent correct, as Aru, second in the Giro, soared away from the main group of favourites with 8.5 kilometres to go, by chance just a few hundred metres from the stretch of road where his teammate Mikel Landa had attacked the break a few minutes earlier.
Aru had already bounded away from the other favourites on stage 7 to the Alto de Capileira but closer to the summit finish. This time, his move was from much further out, and designed to do much more damage.
"I wanted to ride my own race, when I saw the rest of the contenders were watching each other, I attacked aiming to give it everything. I suffered a lot," he explained afterwards.
Aru then dropped Katusha duo Joaquim Rodriguez and Dani Moreno, the only riders able to follow him initially, half-way up the climb with another surging attack. But although American breakaway Ian Boswell (Sky) bravely tried to stick with Aru closer to the finish on the sweeping, steady, upper slopes, the 25-year-old Italian stormed away again to solo to the line in second place - and the race lead. The first of the pre-race favourites, Rodriguez, to reach the line was 37 seconds behind after Aru's display of climbing firepower.
The general classification is still a tightly knit affair at the top, with Rodriguez only 27 seconds back and Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) only three seconds further adrift. But Aru was all smiles at the finish despite being "very tired after a very hard stage, the hardest stage I've ever done in a Grand Tour."
"We wanted to make the course as hard as possible," Aru, who took two stage wins and fifth overall in 2014, said afterwards by way of explaining why his teammates had driven at the front of the main group when Astana's Mikel Landa was ahead on the stage.
Aru issued fulsome praise for Landa - who had said he was worried about Astana's strategy of chasing behind - and said the team was "very united".
"He was very brave racing the stage the way he did," Aru said, "I'm very happy for him, he helped me in the Giro d'Italia and I want to congratulate him."
"This morning we had talked about getting the win with Mikel, he's taken an amazing victory."
The Italian batted away questions over whether he felt he could win the Vuelta, saying "I've prepared myself really well for this, the Vuelta is my objective and I love racing in Spain. it's always a pleasure to race here."
Aru was equally cagey when asked about his rivals for the overall saying, "first we have to rest, and then we'll see. The race is a long way from being over."
So far, though, the general classification tide has started to flow strongly in the Italian's favour - and with three more difficult mountain stages before the time triallists can strike back in Burgos, it may well continue to do so for the talented Astana climber.
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