Chris Froome surrendered the yellow jersey to Fabio Aru as Romain Bardet won stage 12 of the Tour de France in Peyragudes.
Three-time Tour winner Froome faded badly on the brutal final climb of the 214.5 kilometre stage from Pau while Aru finished third to take the final bonus seconds on offer.
The Italian national champion now leads the Tour by six seconds from Froome, with Frenchman Bardet closing to within 25 seconds of yellow in third place overall.
Astana’s Aru will wear the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, while Froome has handed it over for the second time in his, having also lost it after stage four in 2015 before reclaiming it three days later and carrying it to Paris.
Froome’s cause wasn’t helped when he briefly followed Mikel Nieve off the road into some spectators trying to eat some food after they misjudged a corner. Nieve ended up riding inbetween two caravans while Froome and Fabio Aru were just about able to stop stop short before getting back on track.
, Mikel Nieve and Fabio Aru completely misjudge a corner on their descent and gatecrash a picnic being enjoyed by some spectators. Nieve zooms between two campert vans, while the other two stop just short of leaving tyre tracks across somebody’s baguettes. Both are OK, neither actually come off their bikes and they’re soon on their way again.
But that came in very different circumstances, and Froome cut a dejected figure outside the Team Sky bus on Thursday evening.
“It was a tough day for me in the final metres and my team-mates had done such an amazing job,” he said.
“But I didn’t have the legs to finish it off, it’s as simple as that. No excuses. I just didn’t have the legs on the final kick.”
How Froome might have wished for the legs he had on these same roads in 2012, when he was made to wait for Sir Bradley Wiggins when he wanted to attack in search of a stage win.
But there was a key difference this year, with the stage finishing at the top of the airstrip used in the opening sequence of James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and it was there Froome fell short.
“The finish is brutal,” Froome added. “Ramps of over 20 per cent, that’s a really hard finish and I can only say congratulations to Romain Bardet for winning the stage and to Fabio Aru for taking the yellow jersey.
“The race is certainly on now.”
Froome came into this race expecting Richie Porte to be the biggest threat to a third straight Tour crown, but though the Australian has crashed out, he has found himself in his toughest battle yet.
AG2R La Mondiale’s Bardet timed his attack to perfection, taking victory ahead of Aru and Colombian Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac, both two seconds back but each picking up bonus seconds.
Uran sits fourth in the general classification, 55 seconds back after being docked 20 seconds for taking an illegal bottle in the final five kilometres.
Video suggested Bardet may have done the same with 6.4 kilometres left but there was no penalty for the Frenchman.
It was a third career stage win for the 26-year-old, who finished second overall last year.
“I’m feeling very, very happy for sure,” he said. “This was maybe the hardest (win) to get but I will try to enjoy it. Tomorrow is another very hard stage and though I’m here for stage wins I’m here for the overall too, so we have to stay focused.”
Froome was left trailing in Bardet’s wake, coming over the line in seventh place some 22 seconds behind, beaten to the line by his team-mate Mikel Landa, Irishman Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) and UAE Team Emirates’ Louis Meintjes.
Orica-Scott’s Simon Yates finished ninth in the young riders’ white jersey, but the Lancastrian surrendered 20 seconds to his rival Meintjes. Yates leads the young riders’ classification by two minutes and 38 seconds from the South African.
Aru did not even plan on racing the Tour at the beginning of the season, but switched his attention to France after a knee injury ruled him out of the Giro d’Italia in May.
“It’s the biggest thing that could happen to me,” the 27-year-old said of taking yellow. “I never imagined it could happen. The stage was very, very hard and I’m very pleased to wear this jersey for my team-mates.”
Keeping it will not be easy. Friday’s 101km stage from Saint-Girons to Foix is expected to be a full-on battle, and Aru will have to face it with a weakened team.
Astana lost key domestique Dario Cataldo to a crash on Wednesday while Jakob Fuglsang, a virtual co-leader of the team coming into the Tour, suffered fractures in his hand and elbow in the same incident and was dropped on Thursday’s stage.
“It won’t be easy to defend – we’ll do the best we can,” Aru said. “There are nine stages to go. Romain went in the best moment possible, I tried to attack and then suffered a bit. It was such a hard finish.”
The fireworks in the fight for yellow came after Steve Cummings fell short in a bid for a solo win on the 50th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death during the 1967 Tour.
The Team Dimension Data rider had been part of a 12-man break which went away early on the stage, and the two-time Tour stage winner attacked solo on the climb of the Port de Bales.
Cummings stayed clear until midway up the Col de Peyresourde – a climb which saw Tour hopefuls Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador effectively say goodbye to their own chances – but the Briton was caught with eight kilometres of the stage remaining and had to settle for the day’s most aggressive rider award.
“Today was a chance, I just needed the right combination,” the 36-year-old said. “Unfortunately Sky kept the gap too small. I needed six or seven minutes comes to the Port de Bales, not four. I committed but I didn’t have the legs.”
Final leading positions after Stage 12, (Pau – Peryagudes – 214.5km):
1 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 5hrs 49mins 38secs
2 Rigoberto Uran (Col) Cannondale-Drapac at 02secs
3 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team at same time
4 Mikel Landa (Spa) Team Sky at 05secs
5 Louis Meintjes (RSA) UAE Team Emirates at 07secs
6 Daniel Martin (Irl) Quick-Step Floors at 13secs
7 Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky at 22secs
8 George Bennett (NZl) Team LottoNl-Jumbo at 27secs
9 Simon Yates (GBr) Orica-Scott at same time
10 Mikel Nieve (Spa) Team Sky at 01mins 28secs
11 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team at 02mins 04secs
12 Warren Barguil (Fra) Team Sunweb at 02mins 08secs
13 Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing Team at 02mins 11secs
14 Alberto Contador (Spa) Trek-Segafredo at 02mins 15secs
15 Pierre Roger Latour (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale at 02mins 59secs
16 Guillaume Martin (Fra) Wanty – Groupe Gobert at 04mins 20secs
17 Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto Soudal at 04mins 33secs
18 Serge Pauwels (Bel) Dimension Data at 04mins 36secs
19 Alexis Vuillermoz (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale at same time
20 Brice Feillu (Fra) Team Fortuneo – Oscaro at 04mins 56secs
Leading general classification after Stage 12:
1 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team 52hrs 51mins 49secs
2 Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky at 06secs
3 Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale at 25secs
4 Rigoberto Uran (Col) Cannondale-Drapac at 55secs
5 Daniel Martin (Irl) Quick-Step Floors at 01mins 41secs
6 Simon Yates (GBr) Orica-Scott at 02mins 13secs
7 Mikel Landa (Spa) Team Sky at 02mins 55secs
8 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team at 04mins 01secs
9 George Bennett (NZl) Team LottoNl-Jumbo at 04mins 24secs
10 Louis Meintjes (RSA) UAE Team Emirates at 04mins 51secs
11 Alberto Contador (Spa) Trek-Segafredo at 07mins 14secs
2 Mikel Nieve (Spa) Team Sky at 07mins 30secs
13 Pierre Roger Latour (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale at 08mins 13secs
14 Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing Team at 08mins 53secs
15 Alexis Vuillermoz (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale at 12mins 16secs
16 Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky at 13mins 46secs
17 Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe at 14mins 14secs
18 Carlos Betancur (Col) Movistar Team at 15mins 40secs
19 Warren Barguil (Fra) Team Sunweb at 16mins 03secs
20 Brice Feillu (Fra) Team Fortuneo – Oscaro at 16mins 23secs