In the early years of his career, Fabio Aru (Astana) seemed almost to have been hot-housed as a Grand Tour contender, racing only sparingly in the opening months of the season and spending large chunks of the spring cloistered away at training camps.
As he returns to the Giro d'Italia in 2017 after misfiring on his Tour de France debut last July, Aru has made slight alterations to his traditional, low-key build-up. While the long stints of training at altitude remain in his future, Aru appears to be approaching the early part of his season with more immediate ambition than in years past.
The Giro is the overriding objective, of course, but Aru was hardly going through the motions at this week's Tour of Oman, where he placed third overall behind winner Ben Hermans (BMC Racing). A vigilant presence near the front every time the road went uphill, Aru held little back on the slopes of Green Mountain on Saturday afternoon, where he placed second, just behind Hermans. Though reputed as a particularly meticulous trainer, Aru admitted that it would have been impossible to replicate the same kind of intensity outside of a race situation.
"No, absolutely not," Aru told Cyclingnews on Matrah Corniche on Sunday. "A race is unique, I think. In training, you can't make efforts of that intensity after three or four hours. Only races allow you to go at race rhythm, essentially."
Though the five-kilometre haul up Green Mountain whetted Aru's competitive instincts, he betrayed little disappointment at being denied victory by Hermans. At this juncture in a season where the maglia rosa outweighs all else, the process is more important than the result.
"Considering my objectives are a bit further along, it wasn't my intention to come to this race in 100 percent condition," Aru said. "This result is satisfying all the same, because I've put in a lot of work all through the winter. Obviously, I've got a busy year ahead, with a lot of big races in the coming months, and I want to represent myself well there."
It was notable that it was two riders who had already raced this season who beat Aru in Oman; Hermans had competed well at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi) won a stage in the Vuelta a San Juan in January. In that light, the six days of racing in Oman ought to benefit Aru when he lines out for his first WorldTour race of the campaign in Abu Dhabi next week. "This race will certainly give me something more for next week," he said. "I'm coming out of it with good condition so I'm happy."
The competition, in name at least, will be significantly higher at the Abu Dhabi Tour, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) all among the contenders for overall victory. Aru insists, however, that he will gauge the success of his race on the information from his power meter as much as from his place on the results sheet.
"I just look at my own preparation, that's what I've always done. I'm used to that," Aru said. "Obviously, you're looking to get the best result you possibly can in a race like that, but the important appointments are further along."
Even so, on the summit finish on Jebel Hafeet on stage 3, Aru won't be able to help but cast an eye at how his rivals for the Giro – Quintana and Nibali, in particular – are finding the going at this early point in the long run-in to the corsa rosa. "Definitely," Aru said. "I'll watch them closely."