Only yesterday Fabio Aru (Astana) told the press that he was going to target a stage in the mountains of the Criterium du Dauphine but the Italian delivered earlier than expected with an impressive win on stage 3 in Touron-sur-Rhone.
He soared down the descent of the Côte de Sécheras – the final climb of the stage - to take his first win since his Vuelta a Espana crown last summer. And this was meant to be a stage for the sprinters but when Alexandre Kristoff - second on the day - cursed the air and thumbed his bars in anger, Aru held his arms in the air and saluted the crowd.
Aru's ability to hold off a bunch of sprinters' teams in the finale also fired a shot across the bows of his Tour rivals. After losing time in two of the three previous stages, the 2015 Vuelta winner has given a clear indication of the benefits from his latest stint at altitude.
"This morning I thought about trying something. I came into this race having not raced for a long time. My last race was Amstel Gold and I then spent 23 days training at altitude. So when I arrived here I didn't have the speed in my legs and I lost time in the opening time trial. That stage wasn't really for me," he said in his post-race press conference.
"On stage 2, I didn't race for myself but to help Diego Rosa and Luis Leon Sanchez so that they could be at the front. Then with 700 metres to go I let go but even though I lost some time yesterday I felt better than I did in the first two stages."
Unlike Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, the Astana rider isn't locked in a battle for seconds here at the Dauphine. When he lost time on stage 2 he simply shrugged his shoulders and smiled. When he says that the Dauphine is all about the Tour prep he really means it.
"I'm building my form here ahead of the Tour de France. I want the best preparation possible for the Tour and I'll return to Sestriere again for another 10 days on Sunday evening, after the Dauphine. I've already seen some of the stages for the Tour in the last week."
Astana have developed Aru since he joined the team and after years of promise he came through with a second place in the Giro last year and a win in the Vuelta. His position as the team's Tour leader has not been question but the participation of his teammate, Vincenzo Nibali, has.
"It's natural in my career that I come to the Tour this year after winning the Vuelta. With the Giro and the Vuelta I've competed against the best riders, Froome, Contador, Nibali, Valverde, Quintana and Rodriguez but I don't know the Tour so I'll keep my feet on the ground."
Nibali's relationship with his team has been strained over the last 18 months. He failed to back up his 2014 Tour win and was discqualified from the Vuelta last year after taking a tow from a team car. The recent Giro win appears to have healed some wounds but it has been widely reported that he will leave the team at the end of the season.
"I can't say what I'll be able to do in the Tour but I'm happy to do it with Nibali," Aru offered up.
"It's better to have him in the team than outside and I want us to work well together at the Tour, and then together again at the Olympics."
He has the legs, the diplomacy and a team strong enough to mount a Tour challenge.
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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