Italy’s Fabio Aru wins first moun­tain stage of Tour de France.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

CHAMPAGNEY, France — Af­ter los­ing two of its big­gest stars in one crash, the Tour de France needed a pick-me-up.

Italy’s Fabio Aru an­swered the call.

On the first moun­tain climb of this 104th Tour, af­ter the lower alti­tudes where Mark Cavendish and Peter Sa­gan were forced out of the race — the first with a bro­ken shoul­der, the sec­ond dis­qual­i­fied — Aru showed Wed­nes­day he could be the man to beat by leav­ing three-time cham­pion Chris Froome in his wake.

Mak­ing up for the bit­ter­ness in May of miss­ing his home grand tour, the Giro d’Italia, Aru zoomed away from Froome and other top riders yearn­ing to ride into Paris in the yel­low jer­sey on July 23. The pun­ish­ing climb to the Planches des Belles Filles ski sta­tion in east­ern France’s Vos­ges moun­tains was made to look like a mere speed bump.

Froome played down Aru’s show of strength in win­ning Stage 5, not­ing there are still 16 more days of rac­ing to go. But the 32-year-old vet­eran also ac­knowl­edged mak­ing a rookie’s mis­take by not re­act­ing quickly enough when the 26-year-old Sar­dinian slammed on his ped­als.

Along the steep crowd­lined hair­pin bends through dense pines, Aru rose from his sad­dle and rocked pow­er­fully from side to side as he gob­bled up the moun­tain in his Ital­ian na­tional cham­pion’s jer­sey of green, white and red.

Froome got the mes­sage, loud and clear.

“This is go­ing to be the hard­est-fought bat­tle I’ve had,” he said. “We def­i­nitely can­not give Fabio that kind of space again.”

Wed­nes­day’s 100-mile ride started in the spa town of Vit­tel which, like Froome, has seen bet­ter days — with shut­tered ho­tels fallen into dis­re­pair.

At the foot of the 3.1-mile fin­ish­ing climb to an al­ti­tude of 3,395 feet, ev­ery­thing seemed to be go­ing to plan for Froome. His Sky team­mates were pow­er­ing up the as­cent ahead of him, lead­ing their cham­pion up at a fierce pace aimed at dis­suad­ing other riders from at­tack­ing.

Aru hadn’t read the script. De­spite the ef­fort of his sud­den ac­cel­er­a­tion with more than 1½ miles left to climb, he was lu­cid enough when pow­er­ing away to yell at a road­side spec­ta­tor who got too close to him and to toss a wa­ter bot­tle at the feet of an­other. He still had en­ergy to spare at the top to fin­ish with a sprint.

When Froome fi­nally re­acted, up­ping his tempo, it was al­ready too late: Aru was gone.

“When he left, I stayed with my team and waited for the at­tack from the oth­ers,” Froome said. “But no one moved. I thought, ‘OK, I have to go, what can I do?’

“There’s a flat be­fore the last climb and per­haps we waited too long there.”

A con­so­la­tion: Froome took the race leader’s yel­low jer­sey off the shoul­ders of his team­mate Geraint Thomas, who couldn’t stay with the lead­ers on the climb made dou­bly pun­ish­ing by sear­ing sum­mer tem­per­a­tures.

Ir­ish rider Dan Martin of the Quick­step team was sec­ond to the top, sur­pris­ing Froome with his own burst of speed on a very steep sec­tion near the fin­ish. Froome came in third, 20 sec­onds be­hind Aru — who had never climbed the as­cent be­fore but watched video of Froome win­ning the first time the Tour climbed it in 2012.

“It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary for me to win this stage,” said Aru, a two-time podium fin­isher at the Tour of Italy and win­ner of the 2015 Tour of Spain. He was dev­as­tated not to have been there when this year’s Giro started from his home is­land of Sar­dinia, hav­ing in­jured a knee in a train­ing crash.

“I’m some­one who prefers to main­tain a low pro­file. It’s not nec­es­sary to say that I’m ex­tremely happy. A vic­tory in the Tour is some­thing fan­tas­tic af­ter dif­fi­cult months with my in­jury,” he said.

“Only my fam­ily and the peo­ple close to me know what I went through,” he said. “Hav­ing the Giro in Sar­dinia is not some­thing that hap­pens ev­ery year. For­tu­nately my home fans em­braced me any­how and I was able to fo­cus on the Tour im­me­di­ately.”

Over­all, Froome leads Thomas by 12 sec­onds. Aru jumped from 25th to third in the stand­ings, and is 14 sec­onds be­hind Froome. Stage 6 to­day cuts through Cham­pagne coun­try from Vesoul to Troyes and is flat enough for sprint­ers en­cour­aged by the de­par­ture of Cavendish and Sa­gan to go for the vic­tory.

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