Twelve months ago, when the Astana team gathered for its first training camp in Montecatini Terme, in Tuscany, Fabio Aru was still considered a future star of the team and a possible contender for the Giro d'Italia. A year on, with the 25-year-old Sardinian having won the Vuelta a Espana and finished second at the Giro d'Italia, he is now considered a team leader along with Vincenzo Nibali and has been rewarded with even more responsibility and expectation for 2016.
Aru has been given the role of Astana team leader for the Tour de France and the Ardennes Classics, with Nibali forced to accept that he no longer calls all the shots when it comes to the Grand Tours. Alexandre Vinokourov has insisted that Nibali will target the Giro d'Italia and he will then have to play a secondary role to Aru in France in July.
"Last year I was under pressure to do well but I hadn't won a Grand Tour. I don't know if I've changed now I've won the Vuelta…" Aru told Cyclingnews during an interview at the Astana hotel after he was confirmed as team leader for the Tour de France in the press conference that kicked off the team's 2016 training camp.
"Winning a Grand Tour does change things around you and it's difficult to understand until you do it. Personally it was nice to be on stage with Chris Froome and Alberto Contador at the UCI Gala in Abu Dhabi, things like that make you realise you're in a different league. Now I've got the satisfaction of winning and making all the sacrifices seem worthwhile and I've got the motivation to do it all over again. The day after winning the Vuelta, I started thinking about having a good end of season and a good winter and other goals."
Aru returned from a holiday in Zanzibar with a deep sun tan and rested legs after rarely touching his bike since finishing second overall behind Esteban Chaves at the Abu Dhabi Tour. The Astana team travelled to Calpe, in Spain at the weekend and immediately began a serious training camp, with focus on the bike on Monday.
"I feel good and I feel rested. I've had a good break after Abu Dhabi and I've recovered a lot of energy. I started riding my bike again this week and now with this training camp, team meeting and medical tests, the 2016 season is officially underway," Aru told Cyclingnews and Velopro.it as he sat down in a more relaxed setting after the Astana press conference.
Tour de France debut
Aru's thought and ambitions are already projected towards 2016, with him considering 2015 as the previous season. He is expecting to make his racing debut at the Vuelta Valenciana (Feb 3-7) and then gradually build up for the Ardennes Classics with a series of stage races, before a long spell of altitude training and the Criterium du Dauphine before the Tour de France.
"The Tour de France is something new for me but I'm curious to find out what the Tour de France is all about, what its really like," Aru explained.
"I'll study the race route in detail and also ask Vincenzo for advice and on the secrets of the Tour. He won it two years ago and so he'll give me lots of advice. My teammate and close friend Paolo Tiralongo has got lots of experience too."
"My season will be built around being at my best for the Tour de France but I'm almost going to have a pretty busy early season until the Classics. I'll probably start at the Vuelta Valenciana, then ride either Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico and then the Tour of the Basque Country – a race that seems fascinating but one that I've never ridden. I should have ridden Liege-Bastogne-Liege last year but I was ill. I'll do a lot of races I haven't done before in 2016 and so they'll all be interesting to discover and give me some extra motivation."
Aru suffered during the final week of the Giro d'Italia and perhaps lost a chance of beating Alberto Contador by riding too aggressively early in the race. He fought back to win two late mountain stages but seems to have learnt an important lesson for 2016.
"Last year's Giro d'Italia (2015 –ed) taught me a lot. I suffered like an animal," he said.
"Making it to finish on several stages felt like winning to me. In the final stages it was my ability to suffer that helped me win the stags rather than my legs. I was dead tired after finishing the Giro. But I learnt that even when you're biting the handlebars and about to get dropped, you can bounce back and win stages.
"I think I'm maturing quickly, both physically and when it comes to experience. I won races but made mistakes and sometimes gave it too much. I know I can learn and improve, starting with my time trialing and ability to attack on climbs. That's another reason why I can't wait to get the 2016 season underway."