For the second year in succession, the Alps have dealt out a doleful verdict for Fabio Aru's Tour de France. On Wednesday, the Col du Galibier decreed that final overall victory would be beyond the Astana rider's grasp. On Thursday, the ascent of the Col d'Izoard ruled that a place on the podium in Paris would be out of reach for good measure.
The Sardinian began stage 18 in 4th place overall, 53 seconds behind leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) and 26 seconds off a podium place. Though well placed as Sky set the tempo on the lower slopes of the haul up the Col d'Izoard, Aru struggled once the race settled into a staccato rhythm in the final 7 kilometres.
Aru was briefly dropped at that juncture, and after grappling against the gradient to latch back on, he was distanced irretrievably when Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) accelerated a little over 5 kilometres from the top and the yellow jersey group fragmented.
Like on the Galibier, Aru continued to climb out of the saddle, weaving from side to side, but he was unable to summon the strength to close the gap that yawned before him. As he ground his way through the Casse Déserte, he steadily conceded ground to Froome, Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Mikel Landa (Team Sky). Aru crested the summit in 13th on the stage, a little over a minute down on his podium rivals, and he drops to 5th overall, 1:55 behind Froome.
Aru, resplendent in the tricolore of Italian champion, began this Tour in sparkling fashion, fizzing to victory at La Planche des Belles Filles in the opening week and taking temporary hold of the maillot jaune in the Pyrenees, but his effervescence has dulled ever since he conceded the garment so carelessly in Rodez.
"After I lost the jersey I had some difficult days. I wasn't feeling well," Aru said as he emerged from doping control atop the Izoard on Thursday afternoon.
Although Aru had evinced confidence during Monday's rest day ahead of the Tour's entry into the high Alps, he confirmed on Thursday that he had been was nursing bronchial problems through the final week of the race.
"We've come towards the end of the Tour, and having physical problems like this is just part of sport, and you just have to accept it," Aru said. "Fifth place overall isn't to be dismissed, but obviously, I wanted more from this Tour de France."
Although there is still a 23.5-kilometre time trial to come in Marseille on Saturday, Aru's final overall position already seems rather secure, as he lies 19 seconds behind Landa – ostensibly a better time triallist – and has a buffer of 1:01 on the 6th-placed Dan Martin.
Having dropped to 13th overall on the penultimate day after a ruinous outing on the Col de Joux Plane on his debut in 2016, Aru can be rather more satisfied with his haul from this year's Tour, particularly given the fractured nature of his season.
Originally slated to ride the Giro d'Italia as Astana's team leader, Aru was forced out of the race after injuring his knee in a training crash in April. He returned to action at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June and, despite a nearly three-month layoff, showed distinct signs of form ahead of La Grande Boucle. Aru's contract at Astana expires at the end of the season, with UAE-Emirates among his suitors, and the Tour was an important bargaining chip for a rider who is reputedly seeking a deal worth up to €3 million per year.
"I'm disappointed at how it's gone over the last two days, but the important thing to remember is that I worked well these past few months, and I have to be satisfied with that. It wasn't easy to come back this level after my injury," Aru said. "I gave everything."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.