Fabio Aru is the rising star of Italian cycling but in 2015 he will again be overshadowed by his Astana team leader and fellow Italian Vincenzo Nibali. The two are very similar riders with similar temperaments and are now even neighbours after Aru also moved to Lugano in Switzerland during the winter.
Many would like to see them on separate teams and so go head to head on the roads of the Giro d'Italia, sparking yet another rivalry that would fire up the tifosi. But that is unlikely to happen. Aru is keen to plough his own furrow, secure his own place in the palmares of cycling, without getting into a fight with Nibali. He already has the backing of the Astana team and was given the role of team leader for the Giro d'Italia for 2015, putting an end to Nibali's hopes of returning to the Giro this season.
Astana has also signed several riders and built a core group of stage race riders to help Aru at the Giro. These include Diego Rosa, Dario Cataldo, Davide Malacarne and Luis Leon Sanchez. Aru can also count on veteran Paolo Tiralongo, who is his righthand man, training partner and close friend.
Aru is still only 24 and only in his third season as a professional but is considered the future of Italian stage racing and the future of the Astana team. He is convinced he can do better than 2014 when he was third overall at the Giro d'Italia and fifth at the Vuelta a Espana. He is ready to target overall victory at the Giro d'Italia, even if Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) stands in his way as the natural favourite for the maglia rosa.
"We'll find out exactly what I can do this season, in May...." he told Cyclingnews and several other Italian media during a recent Astana training camp.
"I haven't raced a lot. I only raced seriously as an under 23 rider and so I lack the years of racing and the experience of other riders who had a longer development. It's difficult to say how strong I can be and so how successful my season will be. Maybe starting late means I can keep improving longer because I'm fresh and keen. I hope so. Hopefully this is only the start of my career."
Aru looks back with pride on his results and development in 2014.
"They were both special," he says when asked to chose between his results at the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana.
"I won my first ever professional race at the Giro and on a mountain stage too. I'm also Italian and so the Giro was far more emotional. The Giro d'Italia was a confirmation of my hopes and dreams. What I achieved at the Giro gave me the determination to work hard for the Vuelta. I can't deny that I was stronger at the Vuelta because the Giro had made me stronger. I'd also learned how to race better and I was physically stronger. That meant I was able to fight it out with some of the best Grand Tour riders in the world like Contador, Froome and Rodriguez."
No rivalry with Nibali
Aru comes from San Gavino Monreale in the depths of southern Sardinia. He could have stayed at home and worked in the family vegetable business but instead, after finishing school at 18, he opted to forgo studying sports psychology and headed to mainland Italy to race full time with an under 23 team. Before then he had focused on cyclo-cross as much as road racing. Aru raced with the Palazzago team and quickly emerged, twice winning the mountainous Giro della Valle d'Aosta and finishing second at the 2012 Giro Bio behind Joe Dombrowski of the US.
"I gave up a lot to move from home so I could race. I gave it a go and it's working out, I've been fortunate," Aru says. "I think that's given me the extra determination to succeed, a bit like Vincenzo did by moving from Sicily to Tuscany so that he could race. Now I've decided to focus 100 per cent on my cycling career, I'm determined not waste a minute and give it everything.”
Aru has been training hard all winter but will only make his season debut at Tirreno-Adriatico, as Nibali clashes with Contador, Chris Froome, (Team Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Apart from Liege-Bastogne-Liege, it is likely to be the only time they will race together until the Tour de France, when Nibali defends his 2014 victory and Aru could again be his understudy.
"I don't think there'll ever be a problem of us racing together," Aru says, playing down any possibility of rivalry with Nibali.
"“It's difficult to see that he'll ride the Giro but it's not a problem for me even if he does. He won the Tour, he's one of the strongest stage racers in the world. The truth is that you can never predict how a race will go. But if he shows he's stronger than me, I'll ride for him. He did that with Basso and they got on and got results. Last year I was riding the Giro alongside Michele Scarponi and riding to learn. He crashed and so I stepped up and did what I did."
Aru perhaps knows that if he behaves himself, he could get to ride alongside Nibali at the Tour de France. Riding the Tour for experience in 2015 is probably far more valuable than a public spat with Nibali and watching the Tour on television in Italy.
"There's a possibility that I'll ride the Tour; we'll perhaps decide during the Giro. I don't have the engine of an experienced rider, so it's difficult to say if can recover in time but it'd be a great experience," he says.
"I'd love to do it. It'd be like studying at the Sorbonne. I've never done the Tour and so it'd be an amazing experience."
Alberto Contador's rival and heir
Alberto Contador has named Aru as his heir after seeing the Sardinian race at the Vuelta last year. The two are physically very similar and equally aggressive. Of course, Contador is far better in time trials and has several Grand Tour victories on his palmares.
Aru admits he still has to get used to the idea of racing against Contador.
"He jokingly called me campeon at the Vuelta and I had to pinch myself when I was first racing against him. He's always been my idol," Aru reveals.
"I think he's a really nice person and even being asked if I can take him on him at the Giro sounds strange. Were talking about a great of the sport."
"To be honest I don't know if I can ever be as good as Alberto. I can only say that I'll give it everything in the months before the Giro d'Italia so that I'm at my very best. I'll do the training, follow the right diet and live the life of a rider so I can be on form. Between the start of the year and the Giro I'm rarely at home because I've got several training camps and spells at altitude. I can't give much else and we'll see what happens. But who knows what will happen on the road."
Aru travelled to California at the end of the 2014 season to work on his road and time trial position in the Specialized wind tunnel. He knows every second could be vital against Contador and knows the 59.2km individual time trial from Treviso to Valdobbiadene could mean he looses several minutes to Contador and so start the final week in the mountains with a significant handicap.
"I was in the wind tunnel for 11 hours, working on my road position and then my time trial position," he says. "They're real experts at Specialized and very serious about how they do things. They turned me inside out and we worked really hard. Fortunately I was still pretty fit and so could handle it. I used my strength and flexibility to find a better position.
"It's the tiny details, the tiny percentages that add up and make up the difference. I know that they could be important for the Giro d'Italia time trial. I don't know what I can do and what will happen against Alberto. I've ridden a total of three time trials in the three Grand Tours I've ridden and fortunately I've always done better and better. Now I've got to keep working and reduce the gap on the riders who are real time trial experts. Of course I won't abandon the work I do on the climbs. The time trial work will be on top, using my time trial bike on a regular basis."
Loyal to Vino and Astana
While team manager Alexandre Vinokourov and team leader Vincenzo Nibali weathered the storm that swirled around Astana during the winter, Aru cleverly kept a low profile. The Astana team was under huge pressure after the doping cases in its WorldTour and Continental teams but the UCI lacked the evidence and jurisdiction to refuse the Kazakhstani team a place in the peloton.
Many feel that Vinokourov has no place in professional cycling after his doping suspension and long-term links to Dr. Michele Ferrari. Yet Aru is supportive and loyal to the Astana cause.
"I feel sorry for Vino," he says. "I know him and I know he works hard. Without going into the details of what happened in the past, I don't think he deserves all the criticism he's had. As a manager he gives 100 per cent."
When pushed about if Vino or others involved in doping should be allowed to stay in the sport, he avoids giving a direct answer. He takes a very neutral stance, preferring to explain why he is loyal to the Astana team.
"I don't want to say anything about that to be honest," he says.
"Astana signed me when I was still an under 23 rider. They invested in me and have always supported me. They let me ride the Giro d'Italia for experience in my first year as a pro despite targeting overall victory with Nibali. That's something important. Not every team would do that. Last year I was allowed to ride my own race at the Giro and then was the leader at the Vuelta. It was thanks to me but also very much thanks to the Astana team."