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MADRID (AFP) — Italy’s Fabio Aru is finally a grand tour winner after upsetting the odds to claim a grueling 70th edition of Spain’s Vuelta a Espana on the race’s 80th anniversary.
Aru (Astana) had three top-five grand tour finishes to his name before arriving in Spain three weeks ago, most recently losing out to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) on home soil at the Giro d’Italia earlier this year.
His decision to miss the Tour de France in July bore fruit in a crazy race dominated by crashes and controversy, as none of the pre-race Vuelta favorites made it onto the podium.
The four fastest men at the Tour decided to race again in Spain, as Chris Froome (Sky) reignited his rivalry with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in a bid to become just the third man to win both races in the same year.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) were also looking to add to their Vuelta wins from 2009 and 2010, respectively.
Yet, after the stage 1 team time trial was neutralized due to safety fears, Nibali was thrown out on the first day of real racing for being towed by his Astana team car.
Safety concerns ended up being a consistent feature, after a huge crash on the eighth stage left Belgian rider Kris Boeckmans (Lotto-Soudal) in an induced coma for over a week.
Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) were also left to count the cost of injuries from the same crash that forced them out of the race.
However, it was Oleg Tinkov, the outspoken owner of Tinkoff-Saxo, who pushed hardest for action to be taken after two of his riders, Peter Sagan and Sergio Paulinho, were forced to withdraw after being mowed down by motorbikes.
Tinkov even threatened to pull the entire team from the race unless extra measures were put in place before the Vuelta’s queen stage in Andorra.
The stage partially designed by local favorite Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) resulted in Froome being added to the growing list of casualties from the race, with the Briton withdrawing after finishing the day with a broken bone in his foot.
Quintana and Valverde also struggled to make an impact due to fatigue after standing on the podium behind Froome in Paris.
As in the Tour, Quintana improved in the final week to climb up to fourth overall, with Valverde 6:47 behind Aru in seventh.
With the favorites struggling, Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) was the revelation of the race, as he held the red leader’s jersey for six days by showing impressive resistance in the mountains to go with his famed time trialing ability.
In the end, though, the Giant rider admitted the race was just one day too long for him as Aru, flanked by Astana teammates, finally launched an attack on the penultimate stage that he couldn’t match.
Rodriguez had to settle for his third podium finish in the Vuelta in second, while Poland’s Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) made the most of his chance to lead his squad in Contador’s absence to take third.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” said a delighted Aru.
Once the dust settles, Aru will realize that at just 25, he is now part of the elite group of riders with a victory in one of the sport’s three biggest races.