How Fabio Aru's Tour de France gaffe handed advantage back to Chris Froome
In each of his three Tour de France wins to date, Chris Froome had the race pretty much wrapped up after 13 stages.
He was 2min 28sec ahead of second place in 2013, 2min 52sec to the good in 2015 and 1min 47sec in front 12 months ago. So the fact he reached the same juncture this year six seconds adrift of the lead in second place was tantamount to being in the fight of his Tour life.
His main rival going into Saturday’s 14th stage was Fabio Aru, who lost time to Froome on Stage 1’s time trial but subsequently overtook the defending champion in the general classification by impressively dropping him in the mountains on both Stage 5, to La Planche des Belles Filles, and Stage 12, to Peyragudes.
Aru wasn’t just putting Froome under a level of pressure he has rarely faced in this race before, but he was getting the better of him.
So for Aru to then surrender 24 seconds to Froome on a 570m climb to the finish of Stage 14 was not only a gross failure of tactics and concentration, but also an error that could cost him race victory.
He is now down to second overall, 18 seconds adrift, and has very much gifted the initiative back to Froome, who himself hadn’t seen such a freebie coming.
"It's a very nice surprise,” Froome admitted afterwards. “I never thought I would get the jersey back on a stage like today.”
Froome’s sports director, Nicolas Portal, was equally jubilant. “It’s a big gap, when you think about it,” he said. “I don’t know exactly, but he must have gained more than 20 seconds on a 700m finish. It’s been a good finish. It’s fantastic.”
So what exactly went wrong for Aru? Television cameras were focusing on the front of the race and it is not exactly clear, but he wasn’t near the head of the peloton leading on to the climb and was consequently poorly positioned when the bunch began to fracture on the steep gradients.
Astana team-mate Michael Valgren had been guiding Aru on to the climb, but the pair somehow lost contact and when asked how afterwards, Valgren couldn’t hide his frustration with his team leader.
“I don’t know [what happened],” he said. “Ask him [Aru]. I tried to take him to the front, but he didn’t stick on my wheel. Did we lose the jersey? Good.
“I knew the run-in from two years ago, so I knew it was a hard one. It was hectic with the big downhill and everybody coming from the side. I don’t know what happened to Fabio, to be honest.”
Italy's Fabio Aru (C), wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey, crosses the finish line at the end of the 181,5 km fourteenth stage of the 104th edition of the Tour de FranceGetty Images
Greg LeMond, three-time winner of the Tour, also wasted little time in slamming the Italian. "Aru was way back coming into the last 2km," he said. "I couldn't believe he wasn't up front. He lost quite a bit of time for nothing."
Aru can at least take solace from the fact he wasn’t the only rider in the top 10 overall who made a complete hash of Stage 14’s tricky finish, because Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador both lost 21 seconds to Froome, undoing a hefty chunk of their excellent work 24 hours earlier on Stage 13.
But there can be no avoiding the fact that Aru has let Froome off the hook badly, which is something he could not afford to do given that there are only two high-mountain stages left before Stage 20’s time trial, where he is almost certain to lose time.
The top four overall continue to be separated by only 29 seconds, yet thanks to Aru’s gaffe, it’s very much advantage Froome again.