The Italian leader of team Astana was one of handful of riders who could distance previous race leader, and three-time overall victor, Chris Froome (Sky) in the final kilometre.
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Froome rode up the steep gradients to the line at 22 seconds back from stage winner Romain Bardet (Ag2r). Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) placed second and Aru took third, and the bonus seconds that come with it – enough to take the overall race lead from Froome.
“Just past the finishing line, I looked behind,” Aru said. “I had wanted to manage a better placing than third, but I have to congratulate Romain Bardet for a nice stage [win].
“I looked and saw Chris was out the back, I made two or three quick calculations and with the time bonus [four seconds], I thought I had the yellow jersey. When I realised that, it was a fantastic emotion.”
The Sardinian is one of the few Italians to have worn the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours. He won the 2015 Vuelta a España and finished third and second overall in the Giro d’Italia, having had a run in the leader’s pink jersey.
He began this 2017 Tour de France to win, but Froome began as the clear stand-out favourite. A slight shift in power took pace in the Pyrenees near the border with Spain today, however. Aru went from second at 18 seconds to first overall at six seconds.
“The rhythm was so high in the stage final that I didn’t see Froome very much. I didn’t see him in trouble at all. Maybe he was in a little trouble in the end, but since I was not next to him or behind him I didn’t see much,” Aru added.
“The finale was hard, but I just thought of making it all the way up to the finish line and now I can enjoy an indescribable emotion, wearing the leader jersey in the most important race in the world is one of the finest things that can be experienced by a cyclist.”
Aru dedicated the win to his team. They are struggling through the Tour like many other teams. On Wednesday, Dario Cataldo crashed and abandoned and Jakob Fuglsang, fractured his wrist and elbow. Fuglsang continued on through the first Pyrenean mountain stage, but it remains unclear how long he will push on in the Tour.
The Sardinian leader is lucky to even be racing so highly in the Tour after his spring. A training crash and injured knee forced him to forfeit his Giro d’Italia plans and rush back to form for the Tour.
On stage 13, Aru faces what many are calling the Tour’s trickiest stages. The run to Foix covers only 101 kilometres, but contains three category one climbs.
“The nicest thing right now is to enjoy the moment without thinking of tomorrow. Only tomorrow in the bus, in the team meeting, will I be thinking of the work ahead, for now we just raced 215 kilometres, which was demanding and we deserve to relax a bit.”