Fabio Aru will ride the Giro d'Italia wearing the Italian national champion’s tricolore stripes on his UAE Team Emirates jersey. In the absence of Vincenzo Nibali, and as the only Italian overall contender to have won a Grand Tour, the 27-year-old Sardinian carries the hopes of the home nation on his shoulders.
Domenico Pozzovivo leads the Bahrain-Merida team, Bora-Hansgrohe hope that Davide Formolo can impress, and Gianluca Brambilla leads Trek-Segafredo, but Italy expects Aru to step up and take on Chris Froome (Team Sky) and 2017 winner Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and fight for the maglia rosa.
During the winter Aru left Astana for UAE Team Emirates, joining Dan Martin and Alexander Kristoff as one of three well-paid, big-name team leaders. Martin and Kristoff will focus on the Tour de France in July after a quiet spring Classics campaign. UAE Team Emirates have only won two races this season and so the pressure is on Aru to deliver at the Giro d’Italia even against Froome and Dumoulin.
Fortunately, after two difficult seasons, Aru is up for the fight. Third overall on the final podium in Rome would be a good result for Aru but he has loftier ambitions.
"I’m never satisfied with any second place and so there’s no way I’d sign on the line now for a podium place next to Froome or Dumoulin. I’d only be happy with that if I‘d know I’ve given my all to try to win and that they’d shown they’re stronger than me," Aru tells Cyclingnews.
Aru first indicated his Grand Tour potential when he won the Giro della Valle d’Aosta Mont Blanc in 2011, defeating Joe Dombrowski before finishing behind the American in the 2012 U23 Giro d’Italia. He developed rapidly at Astana while under Nibali’s wing, winning the Vuelta a España in 2015 after finishing second to Alberto Contador at the Giro d’Italia.
He was the poster boy for the start of the 2017 Giro d’Italia in Sardinia but crashed while training at altitude, and a knee injury forced him to ultimately miss the Italian race. He recovered to finish fifth at the Tour de France after spending two days in the yellow jersey.
A lack of Grand Tour podiums since winning the 2015 Vuelta and missing the 2017 Giro have somewhat derailed Aru’s career and raised questions if he will ever return to the same level. However, UAE Team Emirates have put their trust in Aru, building their Giro d’Italia squad around him with a group of young but talented Italian riders, plus Darwin Atapuma and Diego Ulissi.
Aru seems ready to prove a point. His difficulties have matured him beyond his years.
"We’d all like to live our lives and enjoy our careers without major problems and setbacks, but overcoming problems is part of life," Aru tells Cyclingnews.
"It’s important how you overcome them and use the lessons learnt during the difficult moments further down the road. Missing last year’s Giro d’Italia and the start in my Sardinia was difficult to accept and so I really wanted to ride the Giro this year."
Aru is happy to fly the flag for Italy. Rather than fold under the weight of expectation or retreat into silence like Nibali occasionally does, Aru is always keen to fire up the tifosi, with a friendly, populist persona and instinctive aggression in the mountains.
He bounced back from a difficult second week during the 2015 Giro d’Italia to take back to back stage victories in Cervinia and Sestriere, getting the tifosi on his side and so outmanoeuvre then teammate Mikel Landa to finish second overall. Aru knows this year’s Giro d’Italia also ends with some nasty final mountain stages in the Alps and is hoping for a similar final surge.
"Obviously it’s the final result, the overall classification that matters, but I think the way you race and the way you achieve your results is what really matters to the people who watch from the roadside or at home on television," Aru says, chasing the Italian vote like an experienced politician.
"I want to do well and try to win the Giro d’Italia but at the same time I also hope that attacking with panache, with passion, will give something back to the fans for the support they give me. In the last few years some of my attacks have paid off, and paid off big time. They’re what I’m remembered for and so that’s another confirmation that it’s right to try to attack."
Aru races with a power metre on his bike but gives Cyclingnews a look of disdain when asked if he uses his numbers to manage his efforts like Froome and Team Sky.
"If I feel good, and sense it’s a good moment to attack, I like to go for it," he makes clear. "Your power metre can’t measure your sense of instinct and tell you that your rivals might be on a bad day and suffering. Sometimes you have to seize the initiative. You have to know yourself and your own limits. It’s a great feeling when it comes off."
The Tiralongo influence
Aru has become close friends with Paolo Tiralongo in recent years and, after retiring last season, the 40-year-old has become Aru’s mentor, coach and personal directeur sportif. Due to his lack of experience and UCI directeur sportif qualifications, Tiralongo will do the race route reconnaissance ahead of the peloton during the Giro d’Italia. Despite his Sicilian roots, Tiralongo is more pragmatic than Aru regarding his chances in this year’s Giro d’Italia.
"Italy expects… We know that, but we’re also aware that we’re up against two very strong and very successful Grand Tour riders in Froome and Dumoulin. They’ve also got very strong teams, especially Team Sky. We’ll give it our all and see what happens when we reach Rome on May 27," Tiralongo tells Cyclingnews, avoiding setting a specific goal.
"Fabio is 27, almost 28, and so he’s almost fully mature as a rider; he’s entering his best years. He is also maturing mentally and as a team leader and moving to UAE Team Emirates has helped that. He’s always accepted his responsibilities and been ready for his major goals."
Tiralongo reveals he will try to control Aru’s aggression, in the hope he uses it at the right time during the three weeks of the Giro d’Italia.
"Fabio is sometimes too instinctive, too emotive. He always wants everything to go perfectly. But life isn’t like that," Tiralongo says, the voice of experience. "But he’s also a fighter, who loves a fight, even when it’s against the odds. That’s how we’re going take on this Giro d’Italia."
Gilberto Simoni was arguably the last Italian to fire up the tifosi like Aru. When he fought for overall victory at the Giro d’Italia between 1999 and 2010, and won the maglia rosa in 2001 and 2003, Simoni always got the partisan fans on his side with a well-timed battle cry and attacks in the mountains. In turn, he gave himself a psychological lift and a sense of home-turf advantage. He advises Aru to play a similar strategy against the stranieri – the foreigners – Froome and Dumoulin.
"Aru, like every Italian, grew up watching the Giro d’Italia. That’s an advantage for him. He ‘feels’ the Giro d’Italia more than Froome and Dumoulin ever can," Simoni tells Cyclingnews.
"The pressure from the tifosi is on his shoulders but it could be and should be an advantage or Aru. It will either motivate him or destroy him. If it motivates him, then it’s worth it. Like a soccer team Aru is playing at home and so should perform better.
"I’m going to be cheering for Aru for sure but it’ll be interesting to see what Froome can do at the Giro d’Italia with the form he usually has at the Tour de France. He’s also looking to prove a point after his salbutamol case and so will want to be aggressive. If he can make it right to end of the race, then we should see a great race."
Taking on Froome
Aru struggled to be competitive at the recent Tour of the Alps but still tried to attack on stage 4 as some kind of pact with Froome to try to crack Thibaut Pinot. Aru suggested he was a hair’s width from the form of the Frenchman, Pozzovivo and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana). They will also be major rivals for the podium at the Giro d’Italia, but Aru is confident his form is on an upwards curve with a trajectory that should peak in the final week of the race.
He has spent the last few days training at altitude in Sestriere, studying stage 18 to Prato Nevoso, stage 19 to Bardonecchia and stage 20 to Cervinia, where he won in 2015.
"I’m a bit behind, I can’t deny that, but there’s virtually a month to the final decisive mountain stages," Aru argues. "Froome wasn’t at his best either. We’ve both spent time at altitude in April and so that work should pay off in the next few weeks."
Recent time at altitude together seems to have strengthened the bond between Aru and Froome. They seemed to strike a deal during stage 4 of the Tour of the Alps, taking turns to attack on the final Bannberg climb near Lienz.
"I get on well on with Froome," Aru confirms when Cyclingnews asks him about Froome’s salbutamol case. "I don’t want to comment on his case because it’s up to the authorities and the rules to decide if he can race and what will eventually happen with his case. Obviously, it’d be good for everyone if his case was resolved as soon as possible."
And if he finishes second to Froome and he is then suspended? "I haven’t even thought about that to be honest. And I don’t want to…" Aru says, suddenly losing his smile.
Overcoming the time trial handicap in the mountains
Aru expects to lose around to two minutes to Dumoulin and Froome in the 34km stage 16 time trial from Trento to Rovereto, but believes there is enough climbing and mountain finishes to pull back any time lost.
"I’ve got a lot of respect for Froome and Dumoulin but I’m definitely not afraid of them," he says, as if already trying to fire up his tifosi.
"We’ve worked a lot on my time trial position in recent months and so I’m curious to see the time gaps in the time trial. I’m higher in my aero position but it helps me breathe better and so I’m faster.
"Both Froome and Dumoulin are strong time trialists but there’s a lot of climbing in this year’s Giro d’Italia and people seem to be forgetting that. The Giro d’Italia is totally unpredictable; you never know what can happen. Finché c'è vita c'è speranza ['Whilst there’s life, there’s hope']” Aru says, dusting off his education of the classics and ancient Roman philosophy.
We can expect similar battle cries to fire up the tifosi before every stage of the Giro d’Italia.