Fabio Aru (left) takes the lead from Chris Froome at Tour de France.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

PEYRAGUDES, France — For his three pre­vi­ous vic­to­ries at the Tour de France, Chris Froome took ad­van­tage of the first big moun­tain stage to de­liver the de­ci­sive blow.

On Thurs­day, that tried and trusted strat­egy never got go­ing, and he sur­ren­dered the over­all race lead to Fabio Aru.

With its moun­tain top fin­ish, the hugely de­mand­ing first stage in the Pyre­nees looked like the per­fect set­ting for his Sky Team to stamp its author­ity on the race, and to help Froome in­crease his lead in the gen­eral clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

Un­til the fi­nal 383 yards of the 133-mile marathon through six gru­el­ing as­cents in the Pyre­nees, the well-oiled Sky ma­chine had ev­ery­thing un­der con­trol.

Froome’s team­mates had set a fast tempo that pre­vented oth­ers from at­tack­ing — a tac­tic that pre­pared the ground for Froome’s ex­pected as­sault in the steep fi­nal sec­tion lead­ing to the fin­ish in the ski sta­tion of Peyragudes.

Froome’s move never came.

Not only was he un­able to at­tack, the Bri­tish rider also cracked dur­ing the climb. French­man Ro­main Bardet won Stage 12 ahead of Rigob­erto Uran and Aru, who seized the lead from Froome by six sec­onds.

Bardet is third over­all, 25 sec­onds off the pace. Uran was handed a 20-sec­ond penalty for ac­cept­ing a wa­ter bot­tle in the last 3 miles, which is not al­lowed, and lies in fourth place over­all, 55 sec­onds back.

“My team­mates did such an amaz­ing job,” Froome said. “I didn’t have the legs at the end to fin­ish it off. Sim­ple as that. No ex­cuses.”

When Aru launched his at­tack in the fi­nal few hun­dred yards, Froome was only able to fol­low the As­tana team leader for a few bike lengths be­fore he cracked. He ended up cross­ing the line in sev­enth place, 22 sec­onds be­hind Bardet.

Bid­ding to be­come the first French­man to win the Tour since Bernard Hin­ault in 1985, Bardet was the strong­est in the bru­tal in­cline and de­scribed his third stage vic­tory on the Tour as “an im­mense joy.”

He said he had vis­ited the ski sta­tion with his par­ents to scout out the fi­nal climb.

“I knew it could suit me,” he said. “I was pa­tient. I made the dif­fer­ence on the fi­nal hill. There was not much to do be­fore that with the wind and the Sky train.”

Aru had trailed Froome by 18 sec­onds at the start of the stage.

“It’s one of the most beau­ti­ful things that can hap­pen to you in life, wear­ing the yel­low jersey,” said Aru. “Clearly, it won’t be easy to de­fend it. There are still nine more stages, we’ll do our best.”

The last of the six as­cents in the 133-mile stage be­tween Pau and the ski sta­tion was too dif­fi­cult for Froome, who had worn the yel­low jersey over the pre­vi­ous seven stages.

He was gri­mac­ing with the ef­fort, his arms glis­ten­ing with sweat, as he wres­tled his bike up the su­per-steep climb that was used in the 1997 James Bond movie To­mor­row Never Dies.

Froome zig-zagged his bike across the tar­mac as he tried to cope with a gra­di­ent so steep that it seemed to glue his wheels to the road.

The only yel­low item he

wore after the fin­ish was the small ring in his nose to help him breathe.

“I did my ut­most at the end. But I didn’t have the legs to fol­low,” he said.

Froome has only a few hours to bounce back be­fore to­day’s short but hard stage to Foix, which fea­tures three Cat­e­gory 1 climbs — the sec­ond-hard­est dif­fi­culty rat­ing. Now that Froome has shown signs of weak­ness, the at­tacks could come right from the start as his ri­vals look to build on the mo­men­tum.

“Aru at­tacked a bit too early to win the stage, but he got the jersey and saw that Froome can be beaten. He’ll def­i­nitely try some more,” As­tana man­ager Alexan­dre Vi­nok­ourov said. “Sky is very strong, but to­day Froome took a hit and his team could be de­mor­al­ized. Let’s hope our guys find more mo­ti­va­tion.”

Rain was fall­ing as the pelo­ton started the stage in Pau, be­fore a break­away of 12 rid­ers gained a lead of more than six min­utes on some fairly flat sec­tions of the course.

Froome’s team­mates rode at the front with Aru’s squad just be­hind, but showed no in­ter­est in re­duc­ing the gap with the break­aways.

Sky stepped up the tempo in the first re­ally dif­fi­cult as­cent, the Col de Mente,. The twist­ing and pun­ish­ing Port de Bales, a nar­row, 7.3-mile climb at an av­er­age gra­di­ent of 7.7 per­cent — rated as “be­yond a cat­e­gory” be­cause of its dif­fi­culty — took a heavy toll on the lead rid­ers.



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