Chris Froome takes yellow off Fabio Aru as Michael Matthews wins Tour stage

The weakness of Fabio Arus Astana team cost the Italian the yellow jersey on Saturday, permitting Chris Froome to regain the Tour de France lead

The weakness of Fabio Arus Astana team cost the Italian the yellow jersey here on Saturday, allowing Chris Froome to regain the race leading. When the remnants of the peloton fractured in the final 500 metres Aru was poorly placed at the back of the group and, while Froome finished seventh behind the stage win, Michael Matthews of Australia, the Italian lost 25 sec in the final 500 m to concede the race lead by 19 sec.

If youd said to me this morning I would take 25 sec from Aru on this finish, I wouldnt have believed you, Froome said. We knew the finish would be selective but I didnt expect to be taking these margins off some of the challengers. It was very technical; it was important to be at the front. I didnt know where Fabio was but my team-mate Michal Kwiatkowski was hollering at me to go because there were big gaps everywhere.

The Sky leader also gained a handful of seconds on contenders such as Romain Bardet, Simon Yates and Nairo Quintana, as well as on his team-mate Mikel Landa. The overall standings remain finely poised, with 29 sec separating the first four of Froome, Aru, Bardet and Rigoberto Uran.

It was important to come to the climb without having made any big endeavors; it was a very technical finish with lots of road furniture, it was important to be at the front taking perfect lines, Froome added. Its still so close at the top. I have to regard all of the riders within a minute as a threat. At this phase we are fighting for every second.

Astana are without their two strongest riders in the crash victims Dario Cataldo and Jakob Fuglsang and had been conspicuous by their absence during Fridays Pyrenean stage, when Aru was left to fend for himself for 80 kilometres. As the peloton descended into Rodez the yellow jersey was at the back of the string, whereas Froome was prominent at the front; Aru had not a single team-mate close by to help him regain position at the front and had to close gaps on his own as the race split.

With vital energy burned up it was virtually inevitable that he would relinquish the race leading. This might not have been entirely a bad thing for the Italian, given that Astanas game plan hangs on being able to base their race on Froome, so his team administrator Giuseppe Martinelli told The Observer . If Sky ride only for Froome and keep Landa back, thats good for us; we can base our race on Froome. If they keep two plates spinning Froome and Landa it gets complicated, Martinelli said.

Australias
Australias Michael Matthews celebrates as he crosses the finishing line ahead of Belgiums Thomas de Gendt. Photograph: Christophe Ena/ AP

The sprint for the finish was intense, fought out between the win here in 2015, Greg van Avermaet, and Matthews, who had targeted this stage, and was able to regain valuable ground in his combat for the green phases jersey with Marcel Kittel, who are not able hang in when the pace increased 45 kilometres out.

Matthews came round the Olympic champion Van Avermaet with 60 m remaining and had a clear margin by the line. It was just reward for a stage in which his Sunweb team had together with Van Avermaets BMC maintained tabs on a dangerous five-man escape, to take their second stage win in two days after Fridays for the Australians room-mate Warren Barguil.

The stands could be reshuffled as early as Sunday, which includes two first-category climbs, one close to the start and one near the finish. In between, the roads of the Lozre and Haute Loire are viciously tough, as Miguel Indurain found out in 1995 when Laurent Jalabert and the ONCE team came close to costing him his fifth Tour on the road to Mende , not far away. It is likely to be war, a full-on stage with lots of assaults; it will be all hands on deck, said Froome.

The tightness of the stands makes for intrigue all round, to start with the question of whether Landa has left the reservation, as one rival squad manager set it. No one can be absolutely certain of the depth of the Spaniards loyalty to Froome and Sky, as he is out of contract in a few months and has been linked to Quintanas Movistar. Similarly Aru is rumoured to be leaving Astana for another Italian-run team, UAE. It was coincidence no doubt but, when Aru was without team help on Friday, UAE were pulling at the front of his group.

By way of a little recent history looking ahead to this weeks two massive Alpine stages and the time trial in Marseille, this years Giro dItalia went into its final time-trial stage with six riders bracketed by 90 seconds, the tightest finish in its history. With a week to go there the reasoning was that a series of tough mountain stages would divide the leaders but it never happened. A knockout punch are most likely come on the Col du Galibier or the Col dIzoard there can hardly be more propitious terrain but nothing in the race in so far suggests it is inevitable or even likely.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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