FOIX, France — After the setback, the fightback.
The day after losing the Tour de France lead to Fabio Aru, Chris Froome and his Team Sky showed on Friday they still have cards up their sleeves. On the shortest stage of the 104th Tour, barring the two time-trials, Sky brought Mikel Landa into play — sending Froome's Spanish teammate racing off ahead on a fast and furious Stage 13 that became part-chess, part a test of speed and endurance over a close-packed succession of three climbs in the Pyrenees.
End result: Sky has two riders — Froome and Landa — in the top five. From here to the July 23 finish in Paris, Aru will have to watch both like a hawk and not let either race off ahead of him in order to keep the famed yellow jersey.
"It's perfect for us," Froome said.
At just 101 kilometers (63 miles), less than half the distance of some of this Tour's longest stages, the up-down, up-down, up-down route through the Ariege region of mountain cheeses and peak-perched fortresses delivered exactly what Tour organizers were hoping for: Full-on racing. They even got a cherry on top, with French rider Warren Barguil winning the stage on Bastille Day — the first tricolor victory on France's national holiday since David Moncoutie in 2005.
"It's incredible," said Barguil, who has recovered remarkably quickly from a pelvis fracture in a crash in April. "I said before the start it would be good if a Frenchman won. It's exceptional."
The Sunweb team rider sped into the finish in Foix, overlooked by its imposing 11th century castle decorated with a French tricolor of red, white and blue, as part of a four-man group that included Landa, two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador, and Nairo Quintana, a podium finisher at three previous Tours.
Contador accelerated first in the final sprint, but Barguil reacted immediately and adeptly negotiated the last U-bend on a bridge over the Ariege river, holding off Quintana to the line. Contador placed third. Testifying to the brevity and relentless racing action of the stage, Barguil covered the distance in just 2 1/2 hours, half the time of longer stages with twice as much road to cover.
By finishing fourth in that leading pack that sped in nearly two minutes ahead of a chasing group that included the Tour's top four riders overall — Aru, Froome, French rider Romain Bardet and Colombian Rigoberto Uran — Landa clawed back valuable time in the overall standings. From seventh overall at the start of the stage, Landa is fifth, just 1:09 behind Aru.
The Italian said there won't be a next time that he gives Landa such freedom to escape.
"I knew he would try something," he said. "But I could not chase every single attack. From now he won't get so much room."
Aru stuck to Froome like glue on the stage, showing a cool head and strong legs as he rode much of the way without any teammates, who couldn't stay with the pace of their group. When Froome hared away on downhills, Aru quickly followed in his wheels. With Froome only six seconds behind him overall, the leader of the Astana team knows he can't afford to let the Briton get away from him. The same is true with Bardet and Uran, who are only 25 seconds and 35 seconds back from the race leader, respectively. The thrillingly tight grouping at the top promises vigorous battles between them in the last week of racing.
"It was a short stage but it was filled with emotions," Aru said. "There were attacks, people tried to attack me several times but I responded every time. I stayed calm and focused. I used my experience."
Aru suffered the blow of losing one of the strongest Astana riders, Jakob Fuglsang, during the stage, the last of two in the Pyrenees. The Danish rider bravely took the stage start with fractures in his left wrist and elbow sustained in a crash earlier in the week. Struggling from the outset, he later abandoned. His departure means Aru will have less support to count on during climbs next week in the Alps, where he could again find himself having to fight off attacks alone.
And having seen its tactics work this time, Sky is already planning its next move to put Froome back in the yellow jersey he held for seven days before Aru took it — with Landa as the team's new joker.
"He's a real threat now for the overall title in Paris," Froome said. "It's a great card for us to play, especially when Astana don't have the numbers to control the race."