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Tour de France

Aru’s first victory nearly in hand in Tour’s stressful start

Fabio Aru has avoided the Tour de France's pitfalls in the first week. Astana's Italian is looking like a GC contender heading to the Pyrenees.

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LE LIORAN, France (VN) — Fabio Aru nearly has his first victory in the Tour de France. If he finishes stage 6 Thursday without losing any time, it will be a win for the Italian who has limited knowledge of the race and country, and is trying to win the overall title in two weeks’ time.

Aru rarely raced in the hexagon country as a professional or as an amateur. Before he turned professional, he focused on the Giro della Valle d’Aosta in Italy, which he won twice, instead of France’s Tour de l’Avenir because they were too close on the race calendar at the time.

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As a professional, he raced mostly at home, helping Astana teammate Vincenzo Nibali win the Giro d’Italia and then placing second himself to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) last year. He did go to the Vuelta a España twice, winning stages and last year, the overall title. Because he rarely visited Italy’s neighbor to the north, Astana was concerned the first week could catch him off-guard. However, Aru remains with top favorites Chris Froome (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) after five demanding days.

“That’s the goal, to not lose time in this week,” team manager Giuseppe Martinelli said. “That’s what we want in this moment. It’s already something in your pocket if you don’t lose time in these days.”

The opening days saw Contador crash twice and Richie Porte (BMC Racing) puncture — both lost time. In past years, the tense first week produced crashes that sent favorites home. Froome crashed three times before being forced to retire in 2014. Quintana was distanced in the splits and crashes in the first road stage in 2015, and never recovered the lost time to eventual winner Froome. That stress is new to the 26-year-old Sardinian.

“It’s stressful because there’s this speed and the high-class field,” Martinelli added. “There are so many teams that put it all on the Tour. That means that those teams are all fighting to be at front, and everyone wants to be there in the first 30 spots. In those spots, 100 riders want to be there, but there’s not space for them. That’s truly what stresses everyone.”

After Thursday’s flat stage to Montauban, the race enters the high mountains in the Pyrénées bordering Spain. It will be a big ask for Aru to stay with the stars as Tour debutant, but Martinelli said that he believes it is possible given his run so far in the Giro and Vuelta.

Martinelli was not happy with his star Vincenzo Nibali, who won the Giro d’Italia in May and came to the Tour to help Aru. Today, Nibali lost ground early on the Puy Mary after Sky and Movistar drove the pace. When the race arrived at Le Lioran ski resort, a stage that should suit a of Nibali’s caliber, he was 8:38 behind.

“I unplugged for days after the Giro, and you have to be ready from the gun with stages like this in the Tour,” Nibali said.

“I wanted to stay there with the others, but I no longer had the legs today. I was almost riding in the gruppetto when I finished. I always said I was coming here to help Aru, and that doesn’t change, but clearly I have to be going better to do so.”