Fabio Aru emulated compatriot Vincenzo Nibali in winning the fifth stage of the Tour de France on Wednesday as reigning champion Chris Froome took over the race lead.
Italian Aru won the 160.5km stage that finished on the La Planche des Belles Filles climb, where Nibali won three years ago before going on to claim Tour victory.
Froome came home third behind Ireland’s Dan Martin in second, and took over the yellow jersey from Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas.
Aru launced his attack with 2.4km left and finished 16 seconds clear of Martin. With a 10-second time bonus on the line, he moved up to third overall, at just 14 seconds behind Froome.
But more importantly, the 2015 Vuelta a Espana winner made a statement that he is a genuine challenger to end Froome’s Tour reign.
Briton Froome came home 20 seconds behind the winner, with Australia’s Richie Porte just behind him, but Colombian Nairo Quintana struggled and lost 14 seconds to Froome.
Last year’s runner up, Romain Bardet came home fifth at 24sec behind Aru, to now sit seventh overall at 47sec.
Thomas, who started the day 12 seconds clear, dropped to second at 12sec behind his team leader.
But at the end of the first mountain summit finish of this year’s race, the overall standings took on a familiar look as the overall contenders flexed their muscles for the first time.
The top 10 are now separated by one minute with all the big guns in there, including two-time former winner Alberto Contador, now eighth at 52sec.
Porte moved up to fifth at 39sec, with Quintana ninth at 54sec.
UAE Team Emirates rider Louis Meintjes finished 11th.
World champion Peter Sagan is out of the Tour de France after accepting his disqualification for racing dangerously, with the race favourites set for their first mountain battle.
The 27-year-old Slovak had been hoping for a last minute reprieve after his Bora team appealed against his sanction for having elbowed Mark Cavendish into the barriers during the sprint finish to Tuesday’s fourth stage.
But on Wednesday morning, Sagan admitted defeat in his bid to ride on.
“I can only accept the decision of the jury, but I disagree. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong in the sprint,” said Sagan.
Cavendish was taken to hospital after the crash where he was diagnosed with a broken shoulder blade, forcing him out of the Tour.
Sagan had elbowed him into the barriers during a muscular sprint finish, with the race commission later deciding to expel the Bora rider for having “endangered some of his colleagues seriously”.
Bora reacted late on Tuesday saying they had appealed the decision and asked that Sagan be reinstated, although that scenario was always unlikely.
“In the sprint I didn’t know that Mark Cavendish was behind me,” protested Sagan. “Mark was coming really fast from the back and I just didn’t have time to react and to go left. “He came into me and he went into the fence.”
For his part, Cavendish said he found Sagan’s elbow inexplicable.
“I was a little bit confused with the elbow, that’s something I’d like to speak to him about,” said the 32-year-old winner of 30 Tour stages.
“I’m obviously massively disappointed to get this news about the fracture,” said Cavendish.
As for Wednesday’s 160.5km fifth stage from Vittel to La Planche des Belles Filles, it has reigning champion Chris Froome licking his lips in anticipation.
It was there in 2012 that he won his first ever stage on the Tour, when he went on to finish second overall to British compatriot and Sky team-mate Bradley Wiggins.
“It was a really memorable victory for me,” said Froome, a three-time Tor winner since. “I’m certainly looking forward to going back there.”
According to Australia’s 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans, this stage will give a big clue as to who will win the Grand Tour when it reaches Paris on July 23.
“If you look back at all the results, certainly of the Tours I rode, the result of the first mountain finish is often very close to the GC (overall standings) in Paris,” he said.
Now retired, Evans is the only Australian and only rider for the BMC team to have won the Tour.
But he has in Richie Porte a more than capable successor for both those roles.
And current race leader Geraint Thomas, Froome’s Sky team-mate, believes Porte will be looking to attack at the end of Wednesday’s stage, which starts off quite flat but climbs to more than 1,000 metres by the finish.
“Richie is going to try for sure. He is in great form and the climb is perfect for him,” said Thomas.
Despite wearing the yellow jersey, the 31-year-old Welshman insisted he has no personal designs in this Tour other than helping his team leader.
“I’m fully committed to Froomey and winning the Tour with him,” he said.
The stage ends with a steep first category climb, 5.9km long at an average 8.5 percent gradient, although the very end rises to 20 percent.
“It’s not a long climb,” said Froome.
“We shouldn’t see big time differences, but definitely it’s tough enough to show exactly where all the rivals are at.”
UAE Team Emirates’ Ben Swift was denied a top 10 finish at stage four of the Tour de France as the rider was caught up in the controversial crash between Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, just metres from the finish.
Fellow UAE Team Emirates rider Maneule Mori was fortunate to avoid the crash and went on to finish the race in eighth place after Peter Segan (BORA – Hansgrohe) elbowed Mark Cavendish (Team Dimension Data) which led to his disqualification from the Tour.
Meanwhile, France’s Arnaud Demare (FDJ) won the sprint finish while Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) retained the Yellow Jersey on day four. The UAE Team Emirates rider Diego Ulissi remains in the top 20.
Speaking after the stage Swift said: “You’re sprinting and following the wheel and then all of a sudden I went flying. We were sprinting in a line and then all of a sudden there was a body on the floor and we tried to turn but it was not possible. We had to come back after the earlier crash so we were already on the limit.”
Starting in Vittel, Wednesday’s stage five is widely regarded as one of the most important of the early stages, covering 216km.
GC riders will be drawn out as they tackle the first category one climb of the Tour, up to La Planche des Belles Filles which will challenge riders with a maximum gradient of 20%.
Whilst riders will not naturally use this stage to gain a significant time advantage, it can give competitors a big psychological boost, if they end the day at the top of the first summit finish.