Fabio Aru (Astana) took part in just three one-day races in the whole of 2015 but he will match that tally in the space of a week as he lines out at Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the first time in his career.
The Sardinian’s decision to eschew the Giro d’Italia in favour of a Tour de France debut this year has had a knock-on effect for the rest of his calendar, and Aru has already clocked up 21 race days in 2016, a marked change from his meagre diet of racing miles over the past two springs.
Although Aru abandoned the Tour of the Basque Country on the penultimate day after picking up a hand injury in a crash, he will line out at the Ardennes Classics with considerable ambition, though the Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race seems likely to be more of a learning experience.
“Fabio’s very motivated and his condition is good, but these are very particular races, especially tomorrow with the narrow, twisting roads. It needs a lot of concentration,” Astana diecteur sportif Stefano Zanini told Cyclingnews in Maastricht on Saturday.
Speaking earlier in the week, Aru pointed to Liège-Bastogne-Liège as his principal target of the week, reckoning that the demanding, selective nature of the Doyenne ought to suit him better than the more fraught fare in Limburg this Sunday.
“Liège is certainly a race that will better for him,” Zanini said. “The climbs are real climbs, whereas here, they’re short and punchy, they’re more like ramps. Liège is better-suited to him, but Amstel is very useful as preparation for that and in general.”
Aru’s late troika of one-day races last year – the Tre Valli Varesine, Milan-Turin and the Tour of Almaty – felt almost an afterthought, a mere addendum to a campaign built around the Giro and his Vuelta a España victory. In his entire career to date, he has made only three appearance in a 250km Classic, all at the Tour of Lombardy. With the Rio 2016 Olympics in mind, perhaps, Aru seems keen to broaden his repertoire.
“I think he wants to learn how to do one-day races. It’s an important experience and it could also simply prove useful to him when when he comes across this kind of terrain in Grand Tours in the future,” Zanini said.
Zanini himself won Amstel Gold Race in 1996, on the old finale that gave cobbled Classics riders more than a fighting chance of victory, and he smiled when asked if, twenty years on, there were any lessons he could impart to his protégé beforehand.
“Well, when I won it, it was a very different race: the finale was certainly a lot easier,” he said. “I can give some advice but when it comes down to it, you really need direct experience of a race like this. You have to see for yourself.”
There is one late change to the Astana team that will line out alongside Aru at Amstel Gold Race, with Lieuwe Westra forced out by illness. The Dutchman will be replaced by Diego Rosa, who was so impressive in winning a stage of the Tour of the Basque Country last week.
“Rosa’s going very well and he won a great stage in the Basque Country,” Zanini said. “Last year in this race he was involved in the most important move of the race, too, but then he crashed, so I think he can do well again.”
Next weekend, meanwhile, Vincenzo Nibali will link up with Astana’s Ardennes Classics team for Liège-Bastogne-Liège, after racing at the Giro del Trentino this week. Nibali and Aru have followed largely separate racing programmes over the past two years, but each man will line out with equal ambition at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Zanini dismissed the notion that they would have any problems in dovetailing their efforts.
“I raced with Mapei, you know, and I remember one Milan-San Remo where we set out with eight captains, so of course we can have two leaders for Liège,” Zanini said. “They’re friends, they are never any problems when they race together, so everything is possible.”