Fabio Aru emerges as Froome’s biggest threat

The quiet family man from Sardinia doesn’t search out the spotlight. He has zero ambitions of becoming the Italian Tom Boonen.

Yet he’s not shy when it comes to racing. When he pounced with 3km to go to win Wednesday’s stage 5 at the Tour de France, the Astana rider suddenly became the center of attention. All eyes within Chris Froome’s Sky bus will be focused on the dangerous Italian climber.

“Fabio rode a great stage. He attacked at the right moment,” said Froome, who is back in the yellow jersey. “Going forward, we definitely we cannot give Fabio that kind of space again.”

Aru took 20 seconds back on Froome, and it’s clear he won’t be given that kind of rope next time.

“If anything, those of us behind, we gave him a little too much space,” Froome said. “After I made my move, a few guys followed me, but no one wanted to pull.”

With time bonuses, Aru catapulted from 25th to third overall at 14 seconds back, a huge recovery following a limp time trial to open the Tour in Düsseldorf (66th at 52 seconds behind Geraint Thomas).

Just like that, and Aru is on Team Sky’s radar.

“Fabio showed in the Dauphiné that he is in great shape, and that was confirmed again today,” Froome said. “I think it’s going to be a big battle. That’s just what the organizers wanted. It’s a more open race, that’s the way it looks for sure.”

The 27-year-old Aru wasn’t even supposed to race this year’s Tour. A knee injury knocked him out of the Giro d’Italia, and destiny steered him back to the Tour. Just five days into his second start, he has his first Tour de France stage victory, and a big target on his back.

With riders such as Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) ceding ground Wednesday, Aru and Richie Porte (BMC) are Sky’s key rivals.

Aru isn’t letting one big day go to his head.

“I have maximum respect for Chris Froome,” Aru said. “I remember racing against him in the 2014 Vuelta a España. He always arrives at the Tour in top condition. What I need to do now is remain calm, and not lose my head.”

In a fast and hot run into the Vosges, Aru bolted at the same spot Froome attacked in 2012 when the Kenyan-born rider took his first career Tour stage win at La Planche, eventually finishing second behind Bradley Wiggins. In 2014, Vincenzo Nibali also won here en route to claiming Italy’s first yellow jersey since 1998.

Will history repeat itself? Aru isn’t looking too far ahead.

“I know how hard and long the Tour can be,” Aru said. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but I am going to take it day by day, stay concentrated, and remain calm — I don’t want to get too far ahead.”

Aru’s unlikely road back to the Tour came off a somewhat disappointing debut last year. After winning the 2015 Vuelta a España, big things were expected from Aru. A steady top-10 performance looked in the bag until he fell apart in the final mountain stage, dropping from sixth to 13th overall.

“That last mountain stage last year was like getting a knife in my back,” Aru said. “I vowed that I would come back to the Tour and do something special in the race that I love.”

With an atypical Tour route that features fewer time trials and only two more pure mountaintop finales, the explosive Aru could be the outsider in this Tour. He’s a rider who can shine in the mountains, with the legs to finish it off to claim time bonuses. With the GC still knotted up — there are 11 riders within 61 seconds of Froome — Aru is looking to finally fulfill his promise in the Tour.

With two Giro podiums, a Vuelta crown, and now a Tour stage win, Aru is the center of attention, whether he likes it or not.

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