It wasn't supposed to end like this. As Fabio Aru inched across the finish line in Morzine on the penultimate stage of the Tour de France, BMC's Amaël Moinard leant across and gave him a sympathetic tap on the shoulder, but the Sardinian seemed but dimly aware of the gesture.
More than 17 minutes had passed since Ion Izaguirre (Movistar) had won the stage, and some 13 had gone by since yellow jersey Chris Froome (Sky) and the rest of the general classification men had rolled past the same point.
Neither the persistent rain nor Aru's sunglasses could mask his tearful expression. He had begun the final mountain stage of the Tour in sixth place overall and harbouring ambitions of climbing onto the podium. It ended, inexplicably, with Aru slipping all the way to 13th place overall in his debut Tour.
Aru's teammates Diego Rosa, Tanel Kangert, Luis Leon Sanchez and Alexey Lutsenko had paced him, fed him and cajoled him from the moment he was distanced on the lower slopes of the day's final climb, the Col de Joux Plane. By the time they dropped down the other side into Morzine, they were simply keeping him company.
Rosa, Aru's closest friend on the team, placed a hand on the small of his back to guide him though the finish area, but not a word was exchanged between the Astana quintet as they soft-pedalled past the photographers, soigneurs and policemen who lined the road.
On arriving at the Astana team bus, Aru climbed aboard without a word, and Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli, too, seemed too distraught to discuss the day's events in any particular detail. "It was an off day," Martinelli said sadly. "If you don't have it, you don't have it. It would be better if he spoke of this day, he was the one who experienced it. I have no other words."
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For much of the day, Astana had seemed very certain of their young leader's capabilities. Although Giro d'Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali had been delegated to enter the day's early break, the Kazakhstani squad was active at the head of the main peloton behind, setting a ferocious pace on the day's penultimate ascent, the Col de la Ramaz.
Aru has made a habit of enjoying his best moments on Grand Tours in their dying days, such as when he snatched the red jersey on the penultimate stage of last year's Vuelta a España or won the final two mountain stages of last year's Giro.
On Saturday, however, Aru began to struggle almost as soon as the gradient started to bite on the Col de Joux Plane. After all of Astana's work, he was the first man to be jettisoned from the yellow jersey group, unable even to hold the wheel of teammates Rosa and Sanchez, who offered him energy gels in a desperate hope to reanimate him.
Even Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) was moved to offer his encouragement but it was of no use. The group soon disappeared out of sight, and Aru would ship time all the way to the summit, at times inching his way towards the top at less than 10kph.
"Our tactic was to go full on to try to finish on the podium," Astana directeur sportif Stefano Zanini said. "The podium didn't work out. That happens. It's happened to lots of champions before and it's happened to Fabio today, who's a young talent."
Later on Saturday evening, Astana released a brief statement from Aru, who had no explanation for what will be classed as the first failure of a career that has progressed seamlessly to this point. "I've suffered a bad day, I can't say why but on the last climb to Col de Joux Plane I couldn't follow the group of the yellow jersey," he said. "Together with my staff we will analyse what happened to me today. For sure I hadn't the legs that I had yesterday or two days ago in the time trial."
While Aru was struggling at the back, his teammate Nibali was seeking to salvage something from Astana's Tour by entering the day's early break. After winning the Giro, the Sicilian has used this Tour as preparation for the Rio 2016 Olympics and quickly exited the GC battle, but has spent two weeks sniffing out opportunities to win a stage.
When Nibali clawed his way up to Jarlinson Pantano (IAM Cycling) and then forged clear alone near the top of the Col de Joux Plane, he looked every inch the stage winner, but his long, steady effort was clawed back by Izagirre. That trio crested the summit together, but Izagirre zipped clear on the descent and a cautious Nibali eventually came home in third place, admitting that his crash on Friday's stage had tempted his desire to take risks in the finale.
"I was struck by a bit of fear on the descent, maybe because the crash yesterday blocked me a bit. I didn't want to risk and I felt the bike sliding a bit under me," Nibali said. "It was like I had a bit of a block, and the other two went down a bit quicker than me."
Nibali will finish the Tour in 30th place overall – his first time to finish a Grand Tour outside the top 20 in his career – but declared himself satisfied with his build-up to Rio. "In this last week I've started to feel a lot better, with better legs. It hasn't been an easy Tour for me after the Giro," he said.
"I'm just sorry I didn't win today, because I've seen how Aru's race for the GC worked out. Maybe it might have brought a bit of joy to our day, but it wasn't easy today. With me in front and Fabio behind, we tried to put a different slant on our Tour by winning a stage and moving up in GC, but it wasn't easy."
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