Fabio Aru feels he is going through an “abnormal” period of his career as his miserable Giro d’Italia ended on Friday when the UAE Team Emirates rider abandoned the race just over an hour into Stage 19.
The team’s leader had lost time on almost every mountain stage and found himself down in 27th place overall at the start of Friday’s stage, more than 45 minutes down on race leader Simon Yates.
Italian Aru had fought his way inside the top 10 early on but slowly began to slip out of contention.
His team confirmed the former Astana man’s exit on Friday, with no indication Aru was suffering with illness or any other problem.
The 27-year-old, however, admits he is going through an “abnormal” period of his career.
“I’m really sorry for all this, for my team, my family and the sponsors that I represent, but it didn’t make sense to go ahead,” said Aru.
“I had said that I’ll evaluate my feelings day by day because I feel that I’m going through an abnormal period of my sporting career.
“I wanted to keep going and honour the team’s jersey, give the fans something and the race its due respect. But I couldn’t do it.”
There were high hopes of Aru, the Italian champion, replicating prior success at his home Grand Tour heading into this year’s Giro, following his move to UAE Team Emirates this season.
After two disappointing attempts at the Tour de France, it was hoped he could rediscover his 2015 form, when he finished runner-up at the Giro and then won the Vuelta a Espana later in the year.
Sadly, @FabioAru1 abandoned the Giro during today’s stage. He spoke openly about how difficult it was for him to stop his home race. #UAETeamEmirates #Giro101 https://t.co/7asWsmNS7r pic.twitter.com/ErFDNNvbuL— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) 25 May 2018
Yet his struggles were evident from early on. He lost a chunk of time on the opening-day time trial in Jerusalem, and although he finished with the favourites on Mount Etna on Stage 6, he lost more than a minute on the Stage 9 summit finish at Gran Sasso.
The second weekend saw any faint hopes of a podium evaporate. He lost two minutes on Monte Zoncolan on Stage 14, but alarmingly conceded another 19 on the following day’s stage to Sappada, which left him 22nd overall, and 25 minutes down on Yates.
After the final rest day on Monday, a remarkable resurgence seemed on the cards when Aru finished sixth on the 34.2km Stage 16 time trial, though it soon emerged how he might have achieved such a surprising result against the clock as he was penalised for drafting.
Aru finished 112th on Stage 17 and 122nd on the summit finish at Prato Nevoso on Stage 18, and it was unclear if the legs were empty or if he was saving himself for an assault on stage wins in the final two big mountain stages.
The question was answered just over an hour into Friday’s big mountain stage, before the riders had hit the Colle delle Finestre and onto Sestriere, scene of a famous stage win for Aru at the 2015 Giro.
“I’m not going to be dramatic, this is sport and maybe, even if it hurts to say so now, this sport is beautiful,” added Aru.
“I’ll try to reset and understand together with the team what happened, then I’ll restart thinking of the rest of the season. Because this is what you have to do in difficult moments.”
Team Sky star Froome attacked with 80 kilometres of the demanding 181km stage from Venaria Reale to Bardonecchia left and won the stage by two minutes and 59 seconds from Movistar’s Richard Carapaz.
Froome, who started the day in fourth place in the general classification, three minutes and 22 seconds off pink, now leads by 40 seconds from defending champion Tom Dumoulin.
Meanwhile, Froome’s fellow Briton Yates, who began with a 28-second advantage over Dumoulin, is now more than 35 minutes off the pace.
Froome told Eurosport: “I don’t think I’ve ever attacked with 80km to go like that before on my own, and got all the way to the finish.
“But the team did such a fantastic job to set that up for me. It was going to take something really special to try and first of all get rid of Simon, to get away from Dumoulin and (Domenico) Pozzovivo and to go from fourth to first.
“I wasn’t going to do that on the last climb alone so I had to try it from a long way back and Colle delle Finestre was the perfect place to do it – a gravel road which reminds me of the roads back in Africa.
— Team Sky (@TeamSky) May 25, 2018
“I tried to stay within my limits and stay within myself there, so hopefully we can finish this off tomorrow.”
If Froome’s win was one of the most emphatic of his career there were reminders of the ongoing controversy generated by his adverse analytical finding for Salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana.
At one point as he struck out alone, Froome, who has spoken openly about his need to control his asthma, was pursued by two spectators dressed as doctors and carrying a giant inhaler.
Froome is bidding to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time, following on from his fourth Tour de France crown and La Vuelta win last season.
And while it proved an astonishing change in fortunes for Froome, who at one point earlier in the race was almost five minutes off pink, Yates endured a stage he will wish to forget.
The Michelton-Scott rider began to struggle as soon as the riders hit the daunting Colle delle Finestre at the mid-point of the stage, at the same time as the roads turned to gravel and Froome began to turn on the style.
The Queen Stage makes history once again! @chrisfroome is the new Maglia Rosa! | La Tappa Regina scrive la storia ancora una volta! @chrisfroome è la nuova Maglia Rosa! ¡La Etapa Reina hace historia una vez más! @chrisfroome conquista la Maglia Rosa! #Giro101#Giropic.twitter.com/iM0LqRIt07
— Giro d’Italia (@giroditalia) May 25, 2018
Four days from the finish in the open streets of Rome and Simon Yates is on the brink of becoming the first Englishman in history to win the Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s most prestigious Grand Tours.
The 25-year-old Bury man has climbed with consistent ease to clinch three stage wins during his time in the maglia rose, but his latest finish was one of the most spectacular yet.
Tuesday’s 34km individual time trial was seen as the decisive moment in Yates’ reign in pink, with defending champion Tom Dumoulin bidding to reduce the 2 mins 11 sec gap that lay between him and the overall leader.
Yates would go on to place a stunning 20th on the stage, 1:37 behind Rohan Dennis and 1:15 behind Dumoulin.
In some distance, it was the best time trial of his career and he now holds a comfy 56-second buffer over the Dutchman.
It was a bullish performance for a man who has struggled in time-trials throughout his career, and with the exception of his 61st place finish on stage two, he has not crossed the line in lower than 34th place in the two weeks of racing.
He could have won a fourth stage too – but instead gifted it to teammate Esteban Chavez on stage six and even came within a whisker of passing Chris Froome on the treacherous Monte Zoncolan on stage 14.
Let’s no also forget his overall consistency in securing eight top-five finishes in the 16 stages of the race so far.
Yates may not be the same household name as Froome or Doumoulin, but his steady rise to the pinnacle of the sport this season is no surprise.
The Mitchelton–Scott rider finished second at the Paris-Nice in March behind eventual winner Marc Soler, and followed that up with a fourth place finish at the Volta a Catalunya two weeks later.
And with Froome struggling for form of late, the question bodes whether Yates could be the man to lead British hopes in this year’s Tour de France.
Froome may be a four-time winner and one of the greatest cyclists of all time, but at 33, his stamina, strength and general drive for success may be starting to fade.
With the Kenyan-born rider facing a potential doping ban in the coming weeks, there is no certainty that he could be lining up at Noirmoutier on July 7.
Though many column inches have been devoted to Yates’ unlikely rise in a turbulent time for the sport, it should be noted that he tested positive for the banned substance terbutaline at the 2016 edition of Paris-Nice, where he placed seventh.
The team’s doctor took responsibility for failure to apply for a therapeutic use exemption for an asthma inhaler and the UCI issued a four-month ban for his ‘non-intentional doping’.
It may be a minor black cloud that hangs over his name in the peloton these days but if Froome and Bradley Wiggins receive criticism for similar actions, then it shouldn’t be any different for Yates or any other cyclist.
With four days remaining in one of cycling’s greatest races, the Briton holds a healthy gap over other riders bidding for victory behind Dumoulin – with Froome almost 4 mins behind and Thibaut Pinot a further 29 seconds back.
Three climbing stages will follow over the next three days, with Friday and Saturday’s stages to Monte Jafferau and Cervinia looking gruelling, but as proven over the last two weeks Yates has an impressive ability to hold his position comfortably or push away on the climbs.
Based on his confidence and ability, this looks to be a seminal moment in a career and season that could see him challenge for the yellow jersey in France later this summer.