BERGERAC, France (AFP) — Chris Froome is as strong as ever, according to his principal Tour de France rival Fabio Aru.
Some have doubted Froome’s form this year. For the first time since he started dominating the world’s greatest bike race, he came into the Tour without a stage race victory all season.
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And although he holds the race leader’s yellow jersey after nine stages, his lead over Aru is a slender 18 seconds and he has yet to win a stage or strike a decisive blow to his rivals — unlike previous years.
But Aru denied this vintage Froome is any weaker than before.
“Certainly he’s shown himself to be as strong as before, he has the yellow jersey — that’s the answer,” the Italian said.
But Aru suggested he and Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang would still be looking to attack Sky’s Froome.
“As always we’ve got maximum respect [for Froome], but we’ll stick to our tactic as always,” he added.
Astana has been the only team to really attack Froome so far. Aru rode away to win stage 5 at La Planche des Belles Filles last Wednesday. Fuglsang got clear on Sunday’s final climb, the Mont du Chat, before being pegged back just before the summit.
But their strong showing has left them second and fifth on the standings, and they’re the only team with two riders fighting for overall victory.
That was something they used to great affect during last month’s week-long Critérium du Dauphiné, which Fuglsang won as Froome finished fourth and Aru fifth.
“We hope we can use it as an advantage, it’s been our idea from the beginning,” said Fuglsang, who is 1:37 back from Froome.
“Also from what we saw in the Dauphiné, it was an advantage.”
At La Planche des Belles Filles, Froome had chosen not to follow Aru’s attack but said afterward he would have to watch the Italian more closely from then on.
He did that on Sunday but then let Fuglsang, who struggled on the Planche des Belles Filles where he’d lost more than a minute to the favorites, get away.
‘Play it smart’
“Of course, Froome can’t go after everybody,” said the Dane. “I’m still at a distance in the GC, he will not concern [himself] about me yet.
“We will see, we have to play it smart. Of course he will follow Fabio [Aru] or [third-placed Romain] Bardet, or whoever is close to him in GC.”
On Sunday, the Astana duo concentrated on putting time into rivals who’d been dropped on the final climb. They reeled in Bardet, who had attacked on the descent down to the finish into Chambery, rather than look to put Froome into difficulty.
Their tactic seemed designed more for fighting to maintain their minor places than competing for top spot.
“The tactic was to gain as much time as possible on those behind,” said Aru. “Behind there were very strong guys like [Nairo] Quintana, [Dan] Martin, even [Alberto] Contador.”
Fuglsang admitted he was delighted with his current position. However, he said his Dauphiné experience had taught him not to rule out aiming higher.
“When we started the last stage in the Dauphiné I would’ve been more than happy with my third place, but I ended up winning the Dauphiné because of our tactics and the way the race was ridden,” he said.
“Of course I’m happy now with fifth place. If I was asked before the start in Dusseldorf if I’d sign for fifth, I would have.
“But we’ll have to see how things go. We’re here to try to win the Tour. Fabio is second. I’m fifth. We have a good team and the possibility to challenge Froome and the other guys in the top.”