Fabio Aru claimed his maiden Tour de France win on Wednesday, as defending champion Chris Froome snatched a yellow jersey he intends to wear all the way back to Paris.
Italian champion Aru launched a blistering attack in the final stretches of the fifth stage, jumping away from the leading group with 2.3km left of the 5.9km climb at a lung-busting average gradient of 8.5 per cent.
On a searing hot day in eastern France, the 2015 Vuelta champion of the Astana team became the third winner at the top of La Planche des Belles Filles, where Team Sky’s Froome came to prominence in 2012 and Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali prevailed in 2014, the year he won the Tour.
“I had seen a video of Nibali’s win and I tried to do the same to see what would happen,” said the 27-year-old Aru.
“I wanted to test my rivals, I did not have the stage win in mind but obviously it’s a great day.”
Ireland’s Dan Martin took second place on Wednesday, 16 seconds behind, while Froome was 20 seconds off the pace in third, with his rival Richie Porte in his tracks.
Another top contender, last year’s runner-up Romain Bardet of France, took fifth place, a further four seconds behind.
“When Aru went, I still had team mates (to do the work) so I waited for the others to react. Nobody moved so I thought I had to go to see what I could do,” said Froome, who added he felt fresher than on his previous dominant rides on the Tour.
Colombian Nairo Quintana, tipped as one of Froome’s main challengers, struggled to finish ninth, 36 seconds back, while Spain’s Alberto Contador limited the damage in eighth place, 26 seconds behind Aru.
Froome took the yellow jersey from team mate Geraint Thomas, who could not sustain the pace on the climb’s steepest parts.
Overall, three-time champion Froome leads Thomas by 12 seconds with Aru in third a further two seconds behind.
Froome believes he can defend his lead until the last day in Paris, although no team has kept the yellow jersey from day one all the way to the finish of the three-week race since Eddy Merckx’s Faemimo-Faema held it throughout.
“I’m used to being in that position,” he warned.
While Aru emerged as the sharper climber, Porte said that the road to Paris was still very long and that the Italian would have to deal with the pressure of being tipped as a major favourite alongside Froome.
“Aru slipped away (a) bit I’m still happy with my ride … he’s going to have more pressure – we saw it last year he exploded in one of the last stages,” the BMC rider said.