If you took them at their word, Astana’s Tour de France plan was to let Jakob Fuglsang and Fabio Aru serve as co-leaders, helping each other out until someone differentiated himself. Fuglsang just won the Tour’s traditional tune-up race (the Criterium du Dauphine) and Astana had to at least pay lip service to his chances to unseat Chris Froome in the Grande Boucle, even if Aru seemed likely to assert himself as the dominant rider as soon as the road tilted upwards. The Tour went four days before tilting upward, and after shredding the field of contenders on La Planche des Belles Fillesand winning his first Tour stage, it’s clear that the Italian champion Aru is the man at Astana and he might even have the legs to hang with Team Sky as the race progresses.
This morning’s summit finish was one of just three in the entire race. For the majority of the climb, it was business as usual for Sky, who have won a quartet of recent Tours by essentially shutting the peloton down and climbing too hard for anyone to even think about popping away. A few riders took fliers early in the climb and they were reeled in by Sky’s unsmiling brigade of white jerseys with astonishing ease. This is what they do.
With 2.4 kilometers left to the summit, Aru launched a sudden attack from the right side of the road, veering over in front of Mikel Nieve and quickly earning himself a healthy gap. Where most riders fade and die as soon as they see daylight, Aru kept going. On-screen graphics had him going twice as fast, which was easily discernible given that he telegraphs how hard he’s working at any given time with his comically expressive face.
He’s not a pretty pedaler like some of his general classification rivals, but Aru is aces at dislodging himself from a group and escaping solo. He’s messy and impulsive, but messy and impulsive is the ideal counter to the staid control exerted by Chris Froome and Sky. Later in the stage, Dan Martin, a similar type of rider, got a gap on Froome and took four seconds from him. The elite puncheurs of the peloton are taking their swings at Froome and, through one summit finish, giving his merry band of climbers some trouble.
Froome lost 20 seconds to Aru and four to Martin, although he slid into the yellow jersey for the first time and picked up time on most other GC contenders. He doesn’t have much of a gap, and he won’t have many easy opportunities to find one in the next week. Sky still look incredibly strong in the hills, but the Tour’s friendlier route might incentivize explosive riders like Aru and Martin to take more shots at Froome’s lieutenants, which could be the only way to isolate the defending champ. Froome is still the heavy favorite, but watching his fiercest rivals keep pace with him or gap him on the climb where he made his name can only be encouraging for fans who want to finally see an intriguing battle for the yellow jersey. As Lance Armstrong said on his Facebook show this morning, Aru can win the Tour.
He can! Aru doesn’t have many racing days on his legs this season and he, uh, tends to get stronger as Grand Tours go on (as does Astana in general). He already beat Froome once, but getting past him in the standings will be a much trickier ask. The hard part starts now.