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CHAMBERY, France (Reuters) - Fabio Aru said he did not see Chris Froome had a mechanical problem when he attacked in the last climb of a punishing ninth stage of the Tour de France on Sunday, even if TV footage suggested otherwise.
The Italian champion, who had unsettled defending champion Froome when he won the fifth stage at the top of La Planche des Belles Filles, powered past Froome just as the Briton raised his right arm to require assistance.
He was followed by most of Froome's rivals, but none of them took turns in front of the group that had taken shape, with Richie Porte, who later abandoned when he crashed in the descent, appearing to talk him down.
There is no rule against attacking a rider who is suffering a mechanical problem but it can be considered unsporting.
"I didn't see it because I was attacking from pretty far behind," Aru, who is second overall 18 seconds behind yellow jersey holder Chris Froome, told reporters.
"Then I heard on the radio that Froome had stopped. I didn't see it at the time that he had a mechanical problem. I wanted to attack right in that moment -- 6km from the summit."
Froome managed to come back to the group with the help of his team mates, and appeared to elbow Aru, but the Italian played the incident down.
"I was about to fall there. You can even ask him. I was about fall because I touched a fan. He apologised right away. It certainly wasn't voluntary," said Aru.
Froome was also diplomatic, saying he did not see Aru was attacking.
In 2010, Alberto Contador came under fire after he attacked Andy Schleck in the climb up to the Port de Bales as his rival's chain came off.
The Spaniard later apologised.
Aru's team mate, Jakob Fuglsang, stood by his leader's decision to attack.
"You cannot always wait when a rider has a mechanical problem. I don't know what happened in the case of Froome but otherwise you have bad legs, you (claim to) have a mechanical and you get two minutes to breathe in the climbs," the Dane told reporters.
"We had a tactic to attack early in the climb and we felt good and we also have to do our race."
Froome finished the stage third and Aru fifth. [nL4N1K0097]
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Robin Pomeroy