Mikel Landa limited himself to two words before turning around atop the Alto de Puig Llorença and descending to the Astana team bus after losing almost a quarter of an hour on stage 9 of the Vuelta a España: "Mal día." Bad day.
The Basque was among the fallers in a crash midway through the stage, fought out in searing temperatures on the Costa Blanca, though neither he nor his team offered the incident as an excuse for his tame showing on the second category 1 summit finish of this Vuelta.
"Fortunately he only picked up a few scratches in the crash, nothing worrying," Astana directeur sportif Stefano Zanini told Cyclingnews in Valencia on Monday morning. "Nothing in particular happened beyond the crash; it just wasn’t a good day for him, nothing more than that."
So then there was one. Astana arrived in Marbella with no fewer than three contenders for the final podium in Madrid, in the shape of Landa, Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru. Following Nibali’s expulsion for taking a tow from a team car on stage 2 and Landa’s travails on Sunday, any lingering leadership debate at Astana has been quietly dismissed. Aru, the man tacitly atop the hierarchy from the outset, is now the undisputed leader.
"We came here with big expectations, with three important riders. Obviously we lost Vincenzo straight away, but even after that, we still had Aru and Landa," Zanini said. "Now the situation is what it is, Landa’s lost ground. Still, we’ll continue as before, and the whole team will be around Aru, including Landa. But Landa is still an important rider for us, and he could even have freedom on a few days to try for a stage win."
As the Vuelta breaks for its first rest day in Andorra on Tuesday, Aru lies in fifth place overall, 1:13 behind race leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and just ahead of pre-race favourites Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
"We’re happy with the position he’s in at this point, we’re definitely satisfied," Zanini said. "And in a sense, we knew it would be like that, because Aru prepared for this Vuelta very carefully, in the best way possible, and he came here on form. Now he just needs to be careful about how he plays his cards, and he needs to be mindful of what the others do too."
Aru lost a handful of seconds to Froome and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) during Sunday’s short but viciously steep summit finish, estimating afterwards that he had been hasty in going on the offensive midway up the four-kilometre-long climb. "I’m pleased with my performance though I went a bit too hard at the start of the climb,” he said. "Still, the longer climbs that suit me better are still to come."
For his part, Zanini felt that it would be foolhardy to extrapolate too much from the data provided by the slugging match on the Alto de Puig Llorença. The short, explosive efforts on its slopes of up to 20 percent will give way to a test of endurance during the 5,200 metres of vertical climbing in Andorra on Wednesday, for instance.
"We’re very pleased with how Sunday’s stage went for Fabio, because it probably wasn’t a climb that suited him particularly well. It was too short and steep. He prefers a longer, steadier climb," Zanini said.
The final kilometre of the climb did, however, appear to signal the resurgence of Froome, who was dropped following Aru’s vicious attack at La Apuljarra on Friday and was again in difficulty at the base of Sunday’s final ascent.
"Froome’s always at that game a bit, he plays a bit with the others," Zanini smiled. "But look, he’s a guy who’s won two Tours and he’s obviously at the very top of the list of riders to keep an eye on here. In all situations and on all stages, you have to be very careful with Froome.
"Dumoulin is going very, very strongly indeed too, like he showed on Sunday, so you can’t underestimate him at all."
Beyond the absence of Nibali, Zanini pointed to the loss of his fellow Sicilian Tiralongo – Aru’s confidant and training partner – as a significant blow to the hopes of an Astana team that had started the race hoping to replicate the kind of aggression that it had shown day after day at May’s Giro d’Italia.
"Well, every day is more complicated for us now because we’ve lost two such important riders. It means we have to be extra careful to make sure we don’t get caught out and find ourselves in dangerous situations, on the back foot and having to chase," Zanini said. "But the team is tranquillo. I think this is going to be the most important week, the fundamental week of this Vuelta. The day after tomorrow in Andorra, that will tell us a lot."