Astana team management have insisted that Fabio Aru's blistering attack through the hills of Cantabria in the Vuelta a Espana on Thursday was a question of sporting pride, and that are no problems at all inside the squad.
Aru blasted off on a climb where the remainder of the GC contenders who attacked, like Albert Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Katusha's Ilnur Zakarin, thinned out the main peloton but could not shake off either race leader Chris Froome or his Team Sky.
For more than 35 kilometres, Aru cut a lone figure in the yawning gap between the red jersey group and the breakaway, at one point gaining 90 seconds on Froome. Had he kept it to the finish in Santo Toribio, it would have netted him a gain of three places in the overall standings. Instead, by the finish, he was only just 12 seconds ahead of leader Chris Froome (Team Sky), Contador and Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac). On the bright side, the advantage moves him up one spot over Sky worker Wout Poels and ties him on time with Woods.
Astana's sports director Alexandr Schefer told the press later that for Aru, his position in the overall classification is largely irrelevant if it isn't a top spot, and it did not matter either that the stage victory was no longer in play. Instead, this was more about reminding the world of what Aru could do.
"Getting on the podium is pretty much impossible," Schefer said. "There are big gaps and strong reactions from the GC riders when he goes. But he's a great rider, he lost a minute yesterday [at Los Machucos] and he doesn't care if he finishes eighth, ninth or 10th.
"He wanted to get some seconds back, but up to now we've not seen much of Fabio in the Vuelta, and I think he wants to show what he can do, his grinta [tenacity]. He wanted to prove that."
There have been rumours that trouble has been brewing behind the scenes in the Astana team at the Vuelta. Miguel Angel Lopez has made giant strides in his climbing and Aru, the 2015 Vuelta winner, is said is to be leaving at the end of the year. But Schefer denied that was the case.
"We're all professional and we want to have a good end to this. [Teammate] Pello Bilbao has been assigned to look after him and there have been three stages where he's been in difficulty, but we've always had Pello with him. Otherwise, he'd have been alone."
Whilst Aru showed himself on the front and Miguel Angel López ceded time to Froome and Contador, Schefer then moved on to explain that Alexy Lutsenko (Astana Pro Team) had tried to take the stage win "because it was his birthday today."
"He's had this stage marked with a cross for a long time, but I don't think anybody expected such a tough stage finish. Somebody was stronger than him."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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