The young Italian found himself struggling towards the end of stage 12. Was it a bad day, or did it spell the end for his Giro challenge?

Fabio Aru is lying second overall in the Giro d’Italia with nine days remaining, but the 24-year-old appears to be running out of gas. The Astana leader lost 14 seconds to Contador on a small, one kilometre climb to the finish yesterday, and rather than dismissing it as an off-day, some are saying he is paying for his inconsistent spring campaign.

His condition looked to be at its worse on the rain-soaked Monte Berico above Vicenza, where stage 12 finished on Thursday afternoon. Aru, surrounded by teammates, couldn’t follow the leading riders as they chased stage winner Philippe Gilbert to the line. He lost crucial seconds to race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and afterwards looked as pale as the young rider’s jersey that was clinging to his bony figure.

Aru still holds second overall, but yesterday’s stage will have alarm bells ringing in the Astana camp. The Italian had failed to follow Contador’s wheel on the penultimate climb of the day when the Spaniard put in a small accelaration, and should never have lost time on the final climb where a good sized group offered lots of protection and wheels to follow.

“He didn’t have a very good run-in to the Giro,” former professional and two-time world champion, Paolo Bettini told La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper this morning. “Maybe he’s starting to pay for his rush to be ready for the Giro.”

Stefano Garzelli, the 2000 race winner, said, “Aru is paying from the five days he had to take off when he fell sick.”

Knocked out by a stomach virus, the 24-year-old skipped the Giro del Trentino in April. The Giro d’Italia was Aru’s first race since placing sixth behind Richie Porte in Spain’s Volta a Catalunya stage race on April 29. His only other race in 2015 was Paris-Nice, where Porte won and Aru placed 39th.

There are whispers that Astana has the strongest team, yet it doesn’t seem to have the captain capable of leading it all they way to Milan.

Aru is relatively inexperienced compared to Contador or even Sky’s Porte. Aru has yet to race the Tour de France, even if he placed third in the Giro and won two Vuelta a España stages in 2014. A rushed build-up to the Giro only discounts him further.

There are some calls to let Spaniard Mikel Landa now lead the team. Making most of the major moves with Contador, Aru and Porte, he now sits in third place at 55 seconds.

If one is to believe Aru, such ideas are premature.

“I was a little off because there wasn’t time to eat in the stage, that was my fault. I was low on sugar for that reason,” Aru explained under a tent protected from a rainstorm at yesterday’s finish.

“We have the rest of the Giro ahead and I’m OK. A day of crisis can happen to anyone.”

The Giro has a flat stage ahead today in Jesolo. The test continues with a mammoth 59.4-kilometre time trial through the Prosecco hills north of Treviso on Saturday, in which Aru is expected to lose time to Contador and Richie Porte, and several high-mountain stages through the Italian Alps.

Dr Hutch’s guide to the Giro d’Italia time trial