From almost out of the WorldTour to seemingly out of this world. What a difference a few weeks have made for Astana, who once again showed their collective strength at the Giro d'Italia by dictating affairs most of the way up the final haul to Campitello Matese on stage 7.
At one point, Astana seemed poised to replicate what Gewiss had achieved on this very climb 21 years ago and move their young team leader into the overall lead, as Fabio Aru sat amid no fewer than five teammates at the head of the pink jersey group.
Astana, as Richie Porte succinctly put it afterwards, could smell the blood of the injured Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), but despite the forcing of Paolo Tiralongo, Tanel Kangert et al, Aru was unable to rid himself of a Spanish favourite as Evgeni Bezin had done in 1994.
Aru's two vicious accelerations – the first with five kilometres remaining, the second 1,500 metres from the line – weren't sufficient to shake off Contador and Porte, and they all crossed the line together, 35 seconds down on stage winner Benat Intxausti (Movistar).
Ironically, had Aru's teammate Mikel Landa not been given the green light to clip off the front and claim second on the stage, the Sardinian would likely finished high enough to claim a bonus to put him into the maglia rosa. Instead, he now lies four seconds off the lead after Contador picked up two bonus seconds of his own at the intermediate sprint at Sora. Predictably, debate over whether Astana had erred in delegating Landa to attack dominated the line of questioning when Aru spoke to reporters at the summit.
"We tried to make the race, and we did that. We put in a good performance," Aru said. "In the end, we decided to put Landa up the road and he came close to winning the stage. It's a pity that he couldn't bring back Intxausti."
Landa's move came after Porte and Contador had neutralised Aru's first acceleration, and at one point the Spaniard himself threatened to move into the overall lead. As it stands, Astana now have three riders in the top five: Landa is in 5th place, 42 seconds off Contador, while Dario Cataldo lies 4th, 30 seconds down.
"Our tactic was to win the stage and Mikel came close," Aru said. "The team is very strong in the mountains and we want to try ride our own race and make it difficult. The team is good and Dario was even able to lead the sprint out for me at the end."
That focus dropped slightly at the first intermediate sprint, of course. "He was very alert," Aru said, though Cataldo made light of Contador's defiant doubling of his overall lead. "The two seconds that Contador picked up don’t change much," he said. "On the final climb, we tried to win the stage and we wanted to isolate the other leaders, and we're happy with what we did."
Contador had praised Aru in his post-stage comments, killing a rival with kindness, perhaps, by labelling the Sardinian as the young rider who most resembled him. "It's very nice to hear that, Alberto's a great champion, it gives me a lot of pleasure," Aru said, though there is likely to be no quarter asked or given on the rugged road to San Giorgio del Sannio on Sunday, the last act of a particularly demanding opening week.
"There are still 13 stages to go and we're going to stay focused," Aru said simply.
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