Vincenzo Nibali's snowbound victory at Tre Cime di Lavaredo will endure as the defining image of the 2013 Giro d'Italia, but the performance of his Astana teammate Fabio Aru that day could yet prove to be a significant footnote.
After laying the groundwork for Nibali at the base of the climb, Aru still summoned up the energy to finish 5th on the stage, almost catching the Rigoberto Uran-led chase group on the final approach to the summit. At the end of a Giro debut that had been blighted by a mid-race illness, the 23-year-old emerged from the blizzard with his lofty credentials enhanced still further.
"I was ill halfway through the Giro with vomiting and dysentery, [Paolo] Tiralongo had the same problem. For three days I was feeling pretty bad but then I managed to recover and I finished the Giro strongly," Aru told Cyclingnews. "For me it was important to finish the Giro on a high note, mainly to help Vincenzo in the final stages, but it was nice to be up there myself on that stage too."
Already touted as a future grand tour contender thanks to victory at the prestigious Giro della Valle d'Aosta as an amateur – traditionally a useful barometer of pedigree – Aru's status was such that he was selected for Astana's Giro team as a neo-professional. With Nibali focused on the Tour de France in 2014, Aru is set to return to the race with a slightly freer role next May.
"[Michele] Scarponi will be the captain, and my job will be to stay close to him, but the team has put a lot of trust in me and I'll have some space
myself so I'm tranquillo," Aru said. "The important thing now is to learn and to help others on the team, and then later on I might be able to play my own cards in races.
"Right now, I just want to keep improving. Of course I'd like to go and win the biggest races in the future, but every rider wants to do that. I'm focused more on growing and improving."
Cycling history is littered with tales of highly-touted amateurs who failed to replicate their early successes at the highest level, however, and though Aru impressed at the Giro del Trentino and Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 2013, he is aware that he has much to work on. A product of the Palazzago amateur set-up in Bergamo – a team managed by the much-discussed figure of Olivano Locatelli – Aru acknowledged that there is a considerable gulf between the under-23 and WorldTour ranks.
"Everything changes because you go at higher speed and the races are longer. The rhythm is completely different too and you're racing against guys who are ten years older than you, guys with more experience and strength," he said. "But if you work hard and seriously, then you can at least manage to lessen the shock of that transition to [WorldTour.]"
The high life
Another difference between the amateur and professional ranks is the amount of time invested in preparing for races. During his years at Palazzago, Aru succeeded in dividing his time more or less equally between Bergamo and Sardinia. To date in 2013, he has spent just 11 days on the island, with the rest of the time split between races, his Bergamo apartment and lengthy stints at altitude.
"I did a lot of training camps at altitude this year, almost two months this year in total – once in Tenerife, once in Etna, once in San Pellegrino, once at Livigno," he said. "Before the Giro in particular we tend to go to Teide, because the weather is better in Tenerife. You can't really go to Livigno in April."
Indeed, Mount Teide in Tenerife has become a particularly popular place of pilgrimage among those looking to shine at the grand tours. Sky and Astana have designs on both the Giro – where Aru and Scarponi face Richie Porte – and the Tour – where Nibali pits himself against Froome – but the two teams will also run into one another regularly in the build-up.
"We always see them [Sky] at Teide because there's only one hotel up there," said Aru. "So we often run into Sky, Belkin, Katusha with [Joaquim] Rodriguez. It's a good place to train because you've got the altitude but the weather is always quite warm too. And the roads are pretty varied there, so you can do specific work."