RODEZ, France (VN) — In the blink of an eye, Fabio Aru’s time in the maillot jaune ended on stage 14’s punchy climb to Rodez.
Astana’s Aru was gapped on the final unranked climb to the finish line while Chris Froome and his Sky teammates upped the pace in the final kilometers. Aru lost 25 seconds to winner Michael Matthews (Sunweb), crossing the line in 30th position but crucially in a group behind Froome. The time gap was 24 seconds to Froome, which was enough to bump Aru down to second overall, 18 seconds back.
After the stage, Aru avoided the usual post-race scrum with TV cameras, instead riding back to his Astana team bus where he spoke to a small group of journalists as he warmed down on the trainer. Aru took responsibility for the blunder, admitting that bad positioning in the peloton cost him the jersey.
“I was a little too far behind,” Aru said. “I was in the second group behind, I made a huge effort to get up there and I paid.”
The final 10km of the stage presented plenty of obstacles, as the road twisted and turned through roundabouts on the approach to Rodez. The road also went from two lanes down to a narrow single lane at 4km to go, which made moving up nearly impossible.
Aru’s teammate Michael Valgren said the team did not intentionally lose the jersey. Valgren rode alongside the Italian champion in the closing kilometers and attempted to tow Aru back into better position. Valgren said he recognized the tricky finish from the 2015 Tour, which also had a stage finish in Rodez. Somewhere amid the chaos, Aru lost the wheel, Valgren said.
“I don’t know what happened to Fabio to be honest,” Valgren said. “We were just three guys to look out for him. It was hard to keep him at the front.”
Aru may actually benefit in losing the yellow jersey. His Astana team has been decimated by injuries during this year’s Tour de France. Both of Aru’s climbing domestiques — Fabio Cataldo and Jakob Fuglsang—were taken down in a scary crash during stage 11. Cataldo abandoned that day, while Fuglsang left the race two days later.
Astana showed its diminished strength during Friday’s stage 13 from Saint Girons to Foix. Aru was quickly isolated on the short 101km course. Sky attacked with ease over the day’s two major climbs. It placed Mikel Landa and Michal Kwiatkowski in long-distance breakaways. Froome stuck with his GC rivals on the Mûr de Peguère.
Valgren said the defensive position did not suit Astana, given its recent injuries. Sunday’s stage 15, Valgren said, would have given Sky ample opportunities to pick his squad apart, given the route’s four categorized climbs. Now, with Froome in yellow, Aru can ride with aggression.
“If they were to isolate us in the beginning you will have a rough time tomorrow,” Valgren said. “Now we can be more laid-back and stay on the wheel. Now [Aru] can go on the attack.”
Aru echoed his teammate’s assessment — yet he said he would have preferred to keep the jersey.
“I’d prefer to keep it, but yeah, the last week will be very demanding, so not everything is lost.