On the final stage of the Tour de Pologne, as rain began to teem down on the final, draggy ascent to the ski resort of Bukowina - and while most eyes were on Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and his surprise attack on race leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) - another rider attempted, briefly, to move in on the action.
For a minute, maybe less, the UAE Team Emirates rider Fabio Aru darted away from the group of chasers behind Yates and managed to put a few metres of rain-darkened tarmac between himself and the rest of the field. He then disappeared from view once more, sucked up by the chasers to complete the stage in an anonymous, if respectable, 10th place, and finishing the Tour de Pologne in an equally anonymous, if respectable, 10th overall.
This mini-attack, hovering just ahead of the peloton for long enough to remind us of his presence, before fading back into the general murk again, was a timely reminder that Aru is due to be heading to the 2018 Vuelta a España as one of the top favourites. But its brevity also reminded fans of just how unusual it has been to see Aru in the thick of the action so far this year.
It’s been all but forgotten that Aru, now 28, was once the coming man in Grand Tour racing. Third at the 2014 Giro d'Italia behind Movistar's Nairo Quintana, then fifth with two gutsy uphill stage wins at the Vuelta a España in the same season, in 2015 Aru then upped his game to place second behind Alberto Contador at the Giro and then poleaxe race leader Tom Dumoulin at a rollercoaster Vuelta.
At that latter topsy-turvy Grand Tour, after Astana teammate and co-leader Vincenzo Nibali had dramatically gone home early for taking a tow from a team car, Aru grabbed the overall lead in Andorra, only to lose it to Joaquim Rodriguez, who was himself out-powered at the top of the GC by Dumoulin. However, Aru, despite having crashed in the final week and casting an utterly miserable figure at the finish in Avila, was finally able to turn the tables 24 hours later on Dumoulin in the last mountain stage for a stunning breakthrough Grand Tour victory, aged only 25.
Three years later, while Dumoulin has steadily moved on to greater things, Aru's career has faltered. In 2016, his Tour de France bid came off the rails completely in the final week because of illness, and a knee injury whilst training in Sierra Nevada then knocked him out of the 2017 Giro d'Italia before it had begun on his home island of Sardinia.
In 2017, his national road title, a Tour de France stage victory and a spell as the Tour leader were a flash of his previous brilliance, before a lacklustre Vuelta performance and a hugely disappointing Giro d'Italia this spring left him on the sidelines again. Out of five Grand Tour bids in the past two years, thanks to an insidious combination of pre-race injuries, mid-race illnesses and untimely dips in form, only one – the 2017 Tour de France – has gone anything like planned.
Under pressure to perform
Never a prolific talker in victory or defeat, Aru was as brief as usual when asked by Cyclingnews at the start of stage 7 of the Tour de Pologne how important the 2018 Vuelta a España is to his season.
"All races are important," he replied, before pedalling away, one meaningless cliché the lighter.
Before that, Aru had been a little more forthcoming when fielding a few more general questions about his form.
"There have been some very tough stages here in Pologne, and I would have liked to have been more on the attack," he told Cyclingnews earlier in the race. "But given that I've been two months away from racing and I've only done the Tour de Wallonie [finishing 10th] since finishing the Giro, it's normal that I'm where I'm at right now.
"Overall, I'm fine physically, and that's the most important thing. I want to get results, but I also want to get to the Vuelta in good shape. It's important to leave a bit of room for improvement."
Between Pologne and the Vuelta, Aru has spent his time at home in Lugano, Switzerland, engaged in some last-minute training. Assuming all goes to plan, he'll want to limit his losses in the opening time trial in Málaga, and then begin to hone in on the overall as soon as the roads begin to steepen 24 hours later.
The first summit finish on stage two in Caminito del Rey is just the kind of punchy finale where Aru has shone brilliantly in the past. From then on, though, his rivals for the Vuelta will begin to emerge as well. Aru names Mitchelton-Scott's Simon Yates, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Rigoberto Urán (EF-Education First-Drapac) as riders to watch. However, UAE Team Emirates' Joxean Fernandez Matxin, who will be one of Aru's sports directors at the Vuelta, is adamant that Aru can and should be up there with the rest of the big names.
"When it's a rider like him, we have to have great expectations," Matxin told Cyclingnews, "because he's got character, because he's a champion and because he's got a victory in the Vuelta in his palmarès. There's no way of getting around it: Aru's a rider who's going to be very important in our Vuelta plans, and our hope is to go for the overall.
"He's had a tough year," Matxin continued. "With a team change – too many changes – and this year he's never shown what he's really capable of. But I have absolute faith in Aru. I know his character and his calibre as a rider, and I want the Vuelta to be a chance for us to achieve things together."
When his plane from his current residence in Switzerland touches down at Malaga airport, at the back of Aru's mind will also be the aim of racing strongly at the World Championships, Matxin said.
"The Vuelta has a well-established position as being great preparation for the Worlds. It's the best way of doing so, and even more so in a year when the Worlds is so hilly. So, why couldn't it be a good Worlds for Fabio? But not just for him – also for Dan Martin, who will be racing the Vuelta for us as well," Matxin argued.
Matxin said that Martin will form a key part of UAE's plans for the Spanish Grand Tour. On the other hand, the Irishman is set to become a father soon, in the second half of the Vuelta.
"We have to bear that in mind, too. But he'll be at the start of the Vuelta, for sure," confirmed Matxin. "I've talked to Dan, and the idea is that he'll race without any stress or pressure, and without going for the overall – and instead simply for certain stages.
"He'll be a free electron, and just enjoy the racing. He's had a good Tour, where he won a stage and was always on the attack."
Aru, on the other hand, comes with the baggage of a miserable Giro and is UAE's GC man at the Vuelta, on a route which, as Matxin points out, always favours the climbers, and this year is no different.
"Even the main individual time trial [on stage 16] is a demanding one and Fabio can do it very well. He's a hugely talented rider."
A strong UAE team with a top rider in a support role, on a suitable route, with rising form and at a race that he's has won before: Aru, in theory, has everything going for him to be one of the Vuelta's main contenders.
And, curiously, Aru has often proved to be a rider who seems to need a big stage in order to show he is at his best. Barring the Italian national championships and a stage at the 2016 Critérium du Dauphiné, in fact, all his professional wins have come in Grand Tours.
This time, however, the pressure to perform is higher than ever.
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