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Fabio Aru’s tough spring season, marred by illness and poor fitness, triggered rumors that Astana teammate Vincenzo Nibali might share GC leadership at the Tour de France, even after winning the Giro d’Italia in May.
On Wednesday in Tournon-sur-Rhône, Aru showed he’s deserving of the team’s faith after a sensational solo victory on stage 3 of the Criterium du Dauphine, springing clear inside the final 15 kilometres.
“It was an easy day on paper, but it’s been hard all day,” Aru said. “I tried to go on the hill and my teammate Luis Leon Sanchez made it across. After I went solo, I only thought of pushing at the maximum. I’ve never thought I’d win this way.”
— Critérium Dauphiné (@dauphine) June 8, 2016
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) led the peloton across the line two seconds after Aru, with Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek-Segafredo) in third.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) survived a late-race scare, as the yellow jersey holder punctured with barely over 3km remaining in the stage. A quick bike change with teammate Roman Kreuziger allowed the two-time Tour de France winner to rejoin the peloton quickly and retain his lead in the general classification for another day over Richie Porte (BMC Racing). Chris Froome (Sky) remains third overall 13 seconds adrift of Contador.
A total of 172 riders started stage 3 in Boën-sur-Lignon; Yuriy Trofimov (Tinkoff), Mitch Docker (Orica-GreenEdge) and Steven Lammertink (LottoNL-Jumbo) didn’t take the start.
The day’s early breakaway of Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick Step), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Dimitri Claeys (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Perrig Quémeneur (Direct Energie) and Cyril Gautier (Ag2r-La Mondiale) was brought back before the start of the final climb, the Category 2 Côte de Sécheras, with 22km to go.
The sprinter’s teams took control of the peloton as the race entered the climb. They hoped to set a moderate tempo up the climb and deter attacks in order to give their fast men a chance to fight for victory.
Tony Martin (Eitxx-QuickStep) attacked on the lower slopes of the climb and opened a slight advantage, and soon Pierre Rolland (Cannondale) and Tsgabu Grmay (Lampre-Merida) jumped out of the peloton in pursuit.
Further up the climb, Martin pushed his advantage to 20 seconds over the peloton with the chasing duo stuck in between the two.
The pace in the peloton was quick, which appeared to deter attacks, but then Aru surged ahead, with several trying to follow the Vuelta a Espana champion.
Over the top of the climb, an eight-rider chase group had formed including Aru and his teammate Luis Leon Sanchez, Steve Morabito (FDJ), Adam Yates (Orica), Mikel Landa (Sky), Bart De Clerq (Lotto-Soudal), Rolland, and Grmay.
The terrain continued to go slightly upward even after the KOM before the quick descent to the finish. Sanchez bridged the gap to Martin, but the chase group followed, forming an nine-rider group in the lead with less than 20 kilometres to go. The peloton, led by Tinkoff, was less than 20 seconds behind.
— Critérium Dauphiné (@dauphine) June 8, 2016
The lead group was disorganized with a few riders not contributing to the pace making, looking to the Astana duo to do the bulk of the work as they had the numerical advantage.
Aru pounced on a moment’s hesitation in the group and attacked as the riders passed the 15km to go banner. The peloton soon swallowed up the chasers, leaving Aru as the lone rider out front.
The Sardinian put on a descending master class reminiscent of his teammate Nibali, holding off the peloton despite never having an advantage of more than 10 seconds.
A narrow bridge with under 4km to go strung out the peloton and disrupted the chase. Soon the yellow jersey of Contador was seen chasing off the back of the peloton; the two-time Tour de France champion had punctured and swapped bikes with Kreuziger. Contador would rejoin the peloton rather quickly.
Aru continued to power in the lead and for the first time his advantage crept over the 10-second mark. The tough climb in the finale had slimmed the peloton, leaving teams with a decision to make — use their domestiques to chase or save them for a lead out.
Under the red kite, Aru’s pedal stroke was still smooth and powerful, and he seemed destined for victory, but the peloton had other plans.
The bunch stormed down the 650-metre finishing straight and Aru was just able to hang on for the victory, by two seconds, punching both hands in the air and smiling wide.
Kristoff took the bunch sprint for second, punching his handlebar over the lost opportunity. “We really tried to close the gap but we ran out of energy and Aru rode really well,” he said. “I was riding as fast as I could. I could not go any faster. In the sprint I felt like I had okay control so, it is disappointing to not be able to win.
“I talked to Bouhanni about the last climb and he told me it was not so hard, so we wanted to close the gap and we did chase and control it, but Aru was just too strong in the end. We couldn’t come closer to him in the descent even though we were on the limit. He was so fast and kept his advantage. I felt quite good today so it’s a pity we could not win. It was somewhat disorganized in the peloton, but we were chasing with many guys so it was not for lack of trying. Aru is a good GC rider and I think we will see more of him in the future. We just couldn’t catch him back.”
Aru may not have had the most promising spring, but his form appears to be coming on strong as he takes on the Tour de France for the first time. His first win of the season seems to have come at the most opportune time.
“The Tour de France is the main goal of my season,” Aru said. “I’m looking at preparing it the best I can. The Dauphiné is very important in that perspective. I’m very happy. Thanks to my teammates and my family. They’re always close to me and very supportive.
“It’ll be my first Tour de France and I want to keep my feet on the ground. I’m very fascinated by this race. We’ll have a strong Astana team and two leaders with Vincenzo Nibali. It’s better to have him in the team than against the team.”
Criterium du Dauphiné (2.UWT) Boën-sur-Lignon → Tournon