Fabio Aru will begin the Giro d'Italia with just 15 days of racing in his legs but with ambition to climb further up the podium after his third place overall in 2014 and fifth place at the Vuelta a Espana.
In the absence of Vincenzo Nibali, the 24-year-old Sardinian carries the hopes of the Astana team and of Italian cycling on his young shoulders. Both the Kazakhstan team and Italian tifosi are desperate for success at the Giro d'Italia to help forget the problems of recent past and find some optimism for the long-term future.
While Nibali represents the present of Italian cycling and is the current team leader at Astana, Aru represents the future. Victory at the Giro d'Italia would make him a household name at home and confirm his place amongst the next generation of Grand Tour riders that will soon replace Contador, Froome and Nibali.
The Astana team management and coaching staff seem to be holding Aru back, protecting him from the weight of expectation and from a heavy race programme, in the hope that his physical and mental freshness will allow him to take on Alberto Contador, Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran and the other pretenders to the maglia rosa. Aru's final build-up to the Giro d'Italia was disrupted by a nasty stomach virus that forced him to miss the Giro del Trentino and a week of vital training. He lost five kilogrammes but he claims a final altitude training camp at Sestriere has helped him regain most of the weight and the form he will need to be ready from stage one of the Giro d’Italia on Saturday.
"This is the fifth training camp of the season. We've been at Calpe twice and at altitude camps three times," Aru tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive after a final long training ride with several teammates around the 2000-metre high ski resort in the Alps.
"Fortunately I like training. I've married the idea of racing less and training more. I might race more in the future but I think it worked in 2014 and I think I've done the right build-up to the Giro d'Italia. I've done over 15,000km in training. I'm sure that we've done the best we can to be in good for the Giro d'Italia."
Giro d'Italia race strategy
Despite spending little time distracted by races, Aru and Astana have a laissez-faire attitude to pre-race planning. Aru gives the impression that he has not spent his many hours stuck up a mountain looking at the route of the Giro d'Italia online or calculating the watts he needs to put out to drop Contador on the Mortirolo. Instead his race will be based more on instinct and carpe diem intuitions. We should not expect Aru and Astana to control the peloton and the pink jersey from the first week but neither will he wait until the final Colle delle Finestre dirt road climb on stage 20.
"You never know how a race is going to go, it's almost impossible to make a pre-race plan for a Grand Tour, there are just too many variables, anything can help. Especially this year considering the route and the favourites," Aru argues.
"A lot of people have said it's not an especially hard route but there are a lot of tricky stages that could prove to be difficult and cause some upsets. For example the third stage in Liguria is tough and most riders don't know the roads. Then we have the first mountain finish at Abetone on day four. That means it's going to be important to be ready from the start in San Remo.
"Later on I think the time trial is a key stage, so too are the mountain stages that include the Mortirolo and the Colle delle Finestre. We're going to be racing for three weeks and fatigue and recovery, illness and injury are also big factors. At the Giro d'Italia, perhaps more than in other Grand Tours, you've got to be ready for anything and you've got to be ready to adapt your strategy and tactics."
Aru studied the Colle de Finestre last week, despite fire track still being officially closed to traffic to protect the dirt road surface.
He saw the 59.4km time trial course between Treviso and Valdobbiadene in February. He is expected to lose time to Contador, Porte and Uran in the long test against the clock but refuses to even think about how much of a handicap the time trial will mean for his overall ambitions.
"It's a tough time trial and the opening 30km are flat and fast but the second half is up and down," he warns. "The length makes it a hard time trial to get right. If you go too deep early on, you could pay for it big time in the final part.
"I won't be riding on the defensive. The time trial is after two weeks of racing and so everybody's strengths are different. We'll see what happens…. It'll be an important test. I'm not going to think or worry about how much time I'll lose to certain riders. I'm going to focus on my performance and do the best I can. I've done a lot of work on my time trialing, I went to California in the winter to spend time in the Specialized wind tunnel and have done specific training on my time trial bike. Let's see what happens on the day."
Aru knows he will have to pull back any lost time in the mountains. He was consistently strong on the climbs in the 2014 Giro d'Italia and had the courage to attack Contador and Froome in the Vuelta as he won two stages.
"I think the stages that include the Mortirolo (stage 16 from Pinzolo to Aprica) and the Colle delle Finestre (stage 20 from Saint-Vincent to Sestriere) are the key stages, they'll be decisive. Even the names of the climb help you understand that. The Mortirolo stage is tough very tough, history has proved that. Finestre is the final big climb of the race and where the final classification will be decided. The 14km on normal roads are steep and tough, and even the dirt road section is difficult. I raced mountain bikes quite a bit when I was younger and so that might help me on the dirt rods. But as ever, it's going to be legs that count, that make the difference."
A solid core in the Astana team
Aru kept a low profile during Astana's fight to keep its WorldTour licence. He cleverly let Nibali face the flack and the questions from the media and focused on his training with the riders who form the core of his team for the Giro d'Italia. While Nibali has Jakob Fuglsang, Lars Boom and Lieuwe Westra for his Tour de France squad, Aru has a largely Italian squad that seems totally loyal to his cause. He can count on new signing and former Team Sky rider Dario Cataldo, Diego Rosa, Davide Malacarne and the experienced Polo Tiralongo. The Giro d'Italia will also include the talented Mikel Landa, Tanel Kangert, Luis Leon Sanchez and Andrey Zeits.
"I'm lucky, we've got a strong team. We'll be pretty good in the team time trial and in the mountains, when it will really count," Aru says.
"We brought the majority of the group together for the Volta a Catalunya and have trained together at Teide too. In the last week or so I've been training with Tiralongo, Cataldo, Rosa here in Sestriere and we've grown close. Tiralongo is an older brother, a teammate and a bodyguard. We've got a special relationship. That's why I was happy he won a stage at the Giro del Trentino.”
Aru has a contract with Astana for the 2016 season and so knows he is stuck with the Kazakhstani team even if he wins the Giro d'Italia and becomes one of the most sought after Grand Tour riders in the WorldTour. For now, he seems loyal to the Astana cause, preferring to avoid the questions about his own and the team's future.
"We were obviously worried about the outcome but we kept working hard," he says. "When stuff like this happens, the riders can only focus on their training and racing and let other people like the management look after the problems. I'm with Astana for now and for 2016. We'll see what happens."
Aru impressed in 2014 by the way he unassumingly took over team leadership from Michele Scarponi and seemed unaffected by the growing pressure from the Italian media and tifosi. This year's Giro d'Italia will only be the fourth Grand Tour of his career but he seems groomed for greatness.
He shows respect for his rivals but does not fear them.
"Contador should never be under estimated but he's not unbeatable," he says. "He's perhaps had a quiet start to this season because he's going for the Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double. But he's still Contador, who won several Grand Tours. How do I beat a rider like Contador? That's both a difficult and an easy question to answer: you need the legs.
"Porte has shown he's going well and has won something like 10 races already this year. I think that has lifted him to the status of joint favourite alongside Contador but we'll have to see if he can maintain that same peak of form in the third week of the Giro. Pozzovivo has also been consistent and is right to include himself in the list of top-five favourites.
"It's important not to forget or under estimate Uran. He's a cagnaccio (a tough nut, a fierce dog). He's always on form and in the fight in the big races. Then there are other riders that can’t be underestimated; people like Hesjedal or Van den Broeck. They could be a big, big threat if they get in a break or gain some time on the favourites."
Watch the below video to see who else we've picked as our riders to watch for the 2015 Giro d'Italia. To subscribe to the Cyclingnews video channel, click here.