Tour de France 2017
Italian national champion Aru of Team Astana made his decisive attack 2.5km from the finish of the 160.5km stage through the Vosges mountains, finishing the first of only three summit showdowns on the 2017 Tour by 16 seconds ahead of Ireland’s Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors).
Defending champion Froome pipped former team-mate Richie Porte of BMC for third place to go into yellow at the expense of Welshman Thomas, who struggled with a series of attacks in the thrilling finale.
Froome leads Thomas by 12 seconds in the general classification with Aru up to third place, a further two seconds back, after the first Tour stage win of his career.
Martin is up to fourth place at 25 seconds while Australia’s Porte – who conceded four bonus seconds to Froome at the finish – now trails the Briton by 39 seconds.
“I’m obviously really happy to be back in yellow,” Froome – who won on this same climb on the Tour’s first ever visit in 2012 – told reporters before congratulating Aru on his win.
“Fabio rode a great stage today and went at a really good moment. We probably gave him a little bit too much space – especially with that flat part of the climb with around one kilometre to go. No one really wanted to pull there and I think he was able to open up the gap.”
“I expected more attacks from some of my rivals but there’s still a lot of racing to come and we can obviously expect a lot from guys like Richie and Fabio, again, once we get into the high mountains.”
Aru’s victory means the 27-year-old from Sardinia – who was forced to sit out May’s Giro owing to a knee injury – has now won stages in all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.
“After winning stages on the Giro and the Vuelta, it’s a huge honour to win a stage of the Tour,” Aru said. “I felt I could do it today. My attack went really well but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to stay out.”
Aru said he was inspired by the victory of his former Astana team-mate Vincenzo Nibali, whose victory on La Planche des Belles Filles in 2014 saw the Italian take back the yellow jersey and hold it all the way to Paris.
“I watched Vincenzo’s win here before so to follow him is incredible,” Aru, the 2015 Vuelta champion, said.
Frenchman Romain Bardet of Ag2R-La Mondiale, last year’s Tour runner-up, took fifth place four seconds in arrears, with British youngster Simon Yates of Orica-Scott a further two seconds back to secure the white jersey as best young rider.
Yates finished in a chase group alongside Spain’s Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Colombian Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac). Twice runner-up to Froome on the Tour, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) showed fatigue from the Giro – the Colombian finishing 14 seconds behind his big rival for ninth place.
Contador and Quintana are now 52 and 54 seconds respectively behind Froome in the general classification and will need to find their climbing legs if they want to deny the 32-year-old a fourth Tour crown in Paris later this month.
Wednesday’s lumpy stage from Vittel was animated by an eight-man break that formed around the Quick-Step Floors rider Philippe Gilbert on his 35th birthday. With BMC leading the chase for much of the day, the gap was never allowed to stretch out more than three and a half minutes.
Another Belgian, Jan Bakelants of Ag2R-La Mondiale, took maximum points over the Cat.3 climb of the Cote d’Esmoulieres as the break fragmented ahead of the summit showdown. Gilbert and Bakelants were the last riders from the break to be caught, around 5km from the summit and before the GC fireworks.
Both Bradley Wiggins, in 2012, and Nibali secured the yellow jersey on the steep 6km climb of La Planche des Belles Filles in the years that they won the Tour. Asked whether he intended to emulate those two riders, Froome was matter-of-fact.
“Of course, I’m going to try and defend the jersey for as long as I can,” he said. “This isn’t a new feeling for me to be in yellow. I’ve worked hard for it and the team has been great, so I’m obviously going to try and defend it.”
The Tour continues on Thursday with the 216km Stage 6 from Vesoul to Troyes which, despite two lower-category climbs, looks destined to conclude with a bunch sprint.