Fabio Aru (Astana) survived the chaos of the echelons and slits in the peloton on stage 16 at the Tour de France and is happy to finally climb into the high Alps on Wednesday and Thursday for the showdown stages over the Col du Galibier and the mountain finish at the summit of the Col d'Izoard.
Aru is lighter than ever at 59 kilograms and is a pure climber who has always focused on Grand Tours, yet he dived into the high-speed echelon with gusto on Tuesday as if he were a veteran of several Classics campaigns. He knew the importance of riding near the front of the echelon and wisely avoided the risk of crashes of splits in the tail.
Aru finished 18th in Romans-sur-Isère, just a few places behind Chris Froome (Team Sky), Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac). They are all fighting for overall victory, with Aru only 18 seconds down on Froome, 23 on Bardet and 29 on Uran.
"There was a risk of echelons, but I was up there and so it was a good day for us," Aru said as he warmed down on the rollers in a long-sleeve jersey despite the 34C temperatures.
"This is the Tour, you can never underestimate any stage. This one came after the rest day and so lots of riders wanted to go for it. My teammates did a good job by keeping up front all day. I can only thank them. Then in the finale I jumped into the echelon with 20km to go and I stayed there."
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Aru has shown a new maturity during this year's Tour de France. That was clear to see as he took turns into the Mistral wind in the twisting road of the finale in the Rhone valley.
"I learnt a lot about riding in the echelons at last year's Tour," he explained.
"The stage to Mont Ventoux was similar and there were others. Echelon's don't happen that often for Grand Tour riders like, perhaps only at Paris-Nice or the Abu Dhabi Tour. But you've got to be ready for everything, not only on the climbs, if you want to be up there in the Tour de France."
Heading into the high Alps
Aru faces an uphill task to topple Chris Froome. He is 18 seconds down in the general classification but needs to gain at least 90 seconds on the Briton if he is to have a chance of winning the Tour de France in the key Marseille time trial on Saturday. He is also handicapped by the lack of team support. Astana has been hit by the tragic death of Michele Scarponi and the loss of co-leader Jakob Fuglsang and loyal teammate Dario Cataldo. Without those losses Astana would arguably been as strong as Team Sky or Bardet's AG2R La Mondiale squad.
Aru knows he will have try to take advantage of Bardet's natural aggression and the strength of AG2R-La Mondiale on home roads in the Alps. He knows that the current time gaps of seconds could open to minutes before the weekend.
"We've got two big mountain stages to come. They're going to be spectacular," Aru said with genuine enthusiasm.
"I think this stage will have left its mark on some riders. We went fast and hard. We've got two hard days ahead of us. I'm curious to see how I do."
On Wednesday, the Tour de France climbs the double whammy of the Col du Telegraph and the Col du Galibier – 2642 metres above sea level in the finale of the 183km stage that ends with a long descent to Serre Chevalier. On Thursday, the riders loop south via Embrun to climb the legendary Col d'Izoard (2360 metres) by way of the Casse Desert.
The 179.5km stage ends at the very summit of the climb. The second half of the 14-kilometre climb pitches upwards into grades at over nine per cent.
"I don't know all of the climbs of the Alpine stages but I've ridden some during training camps at Sestriere," Aru said confidently.
"I think the Izoard will be the toughest. The Galibier is hard in places but the Izoard is tough for a long, long section."
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