July 06, 2016

LE LIORAN, France (AP) Vincenzo Nibali's struggles in the first hard climb of the Tour de France have settled the leadership debate within the Astana team.

The 2014 Tour champion was dropped by the top Tour contenders in the punishing category-2 ascent of the Pas de Peyrol in Wednesday's first mountain stage, crossing the finish line at Le Lioran ski resort eight minutes and 38 seconds behind his younger Astana teammate Fabio Aru.

After winning the Giro earlier this season, the Sicilian rider made the pledge that he would ride the Tour in support of Aru to focus instead on the Olympic Games' road race next month. The plan was that Aru would return the favor by working for him in Rio, where both cyclists traveled in January to check out the course.

But given Nibali's proud temper and stunning comeback on the penultimate stage of the Giro, there was speculation that he would play his personal card at cycling's showpiece event.

It's now obvious that Nibali is not fresh enough to compete for the overall win.

With three very difficult stages in the Pyrenees looming this weekend, Nibali dropped to 50th overall, 14.06 minutes behind new race leader Greg Van Avermaet.

''I wanted to stay near the front with Fabio, but I didn't have the legs and I wasn't having a good day so I really let it all go,'' Nibali said at his team bus after the 216-kilometer stage on the middle mountain roads of Massif Central.

''After the Giro, I took 15 days off. It's not easy to race here after the Giro. We've all said many times that Fabio is racing for the Tour, so we're here in support of him. Today it would have been nice to be alongside Fabio, but it wasn't my day. I'm fine with this, I don't have any regret.''

Astana manager Alexandre Vinokourov said Nibali suffered from the heat and was not surprised by his rider's failure to deliver.

''We knew he would not be a contender,'' Vinokourov said. ''Today was difficult for everybody, a real mountain stage even if the climbs were not so long. And everyone saw that Aru was there.''

A climbing specialist who won the Spanish Vuelta last year, Aru is widely regarded as a future great of his sport. At 25, he has also finished twice on the Giro podium and is attempting to win the Tour on his race debut. Only 11 cyclists have achieved the feat, including Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Felice Gimondi.

Aru, who was mentored by Nibali earlier in his career, was at ease throughout the day's five climbs and crossed the line in the same time as favorites Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, keeping his chances alive.

Although he is not sure he will recover his form before the Pyrenees, Nibali repeated that he would try his best to help Aru. ''He is in great shape and we all want to ride a good race for him.''

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