There was a time when an Italian rider’s season came to an end on the finish line of Il Lombardia, but Fabio Aru still had promises to keep and miles to go when he passed the Arrivo banner in Como almost nine minutes down on Thibaut Pinot on Saturday afternoon.
Aru’s debut season at UAE Team Emirates saw him abandon the Giro d’Italia before an attempted do-over at the Vuelta a España fell flat but, rather than call time on a trying year, he has prolonged his campaign by riding the Tour of Guangxi, which gets underway on Tuesday.
On Sunday morning, Aru boarded a flight from Milan to Hong Kong, before catching a connection to Nanning and then taking a three-hour bus ride south to Beihai, a coastal city on the South China Sea, finally reaching his destination on Monday afternoon local time after almost 24 hours in transit.
Later in the evening, Aru was among the three riders – Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and local favourite Meiyn Wang (Bahrain-Merida) were the others – who made themselves available for the pre-race press conference. An understandably bleary-eyed Aru mustered as much cheer as he could when answering questions from the local media – "It’s my first time in China, I haven’t seen much yet," he smiled – before later discussing his reasons for extending a difficult season by six more days.
"I’ll tell you the truth, and it might seem mad, but even though it’s been a difficult season, the desire to race is still there, so I’m happy to be here," Aru said, mindful, no doubt, that his presence in China might have been interpreted as a form of penance imposed by his team for a year without a victory.
"I haven’t come here without the desire to ride. Of course, my condition isn’t the best. It hasn’t been the best in recent weeks, and it wasn’t at Lombardia, either. But from a physical point of view, it was important for me to finish with another race, to have this new experience, which could be useful for the future."
With just one uphill finish on the agenda, the Tour of Guangxi hardly lends itself to a rider of Aru’s talents, and he acknowledged that his current condition does not allow him to approach the stage 4 summit finish at Nongla with any particular ambition. It would be facile, too, to label it as his first race of the 2019 season, not least when a full debrief of the current campaign has yet to take place.
"I don’t have a lot of personal objectives here because physically I haven’t been very good all season," Aru confessed. "I had to pull out of the Worlds, and if I was going well, I certainly would never have done that. The important thing is to continue to try to understand how I am, to see if I’m a bit better. After this race, I’ll have a period of rest and, yes, I’m also thinking of next season, so it’s important to finish this year well here so I can start next year well."
Aru turned professional with Astana at the end of 2012 fresh from victory at the Giro della Valle d’Aosta that summer, and he was immediately hot-housed as a Grand Tour rider. In his first full season in 2013, he was a key part of Vincenzo Nibali’s guard at the Giro d’Italia, before taking up the reins of leadership himself, with podium finishes in 2014 and 2015.
Growing up in public seemed to pose no problems for Aru, who proceeded to win the 2015 Vuelta, but he suffered the first major setback of his career at the following year’s Tour de France, when he collapsed to 13th place overall on the final mountain stage after beginning the day within touching distance of the podium. In 2017, meanwhile, a training crash forced Aru to miss the Giro, though he bounced back quickly to claim the Italian title, a stage win at the Tour and 5th overall in Paris.
"In recent years, I’ve always had some sort of problem, some physical issues, and I've never been able to be competitive from the start of the year to the finish, and that’s something I don’t like," Aru said. "I work all year long, but in the recent years, I haven’t collected the fruits of the work I've put in. But that’s life and that’s sport. The important thing to have the desire and the tables will turn. You have to have patience."
Aru’s issues in 2017 at least had a visible root, and the knee injury that forced him to forgo a Giro Grande Partenza in his native Sardinia had a precise timeline for recovery. The malaise that has beset him throughout his debut season at UAE Team Emirates, on the other hand, has no such obvious remedy. Chasing form can be a maddening business.
"Something was missing all year, I was always a step behind the strongest riders," Aru said. "All year long, I never managed to get into my very top condition. Unfortunately, that’s sport these days, it doesn’t allow you to be at 95 per cent. When you’re missing even a little bit, you’ll struggle to get results, especially a stage race rider of my characteristics. In the climbs too, it’s always a bit more difficult.
"Some errors were certainly committed, and sometimes I probably tried to do too much. When you try to do things at all costs, that causes you to make errors. We’re evaluating things with the team. But I repeat, even though it’s been a difficult season, the important thing is to be here with the desire to get back up because, frankly, the results I’ve had this year aren’t in line with the level I’ve always shown and what I want from myself."
English neologisms continue their encroachment into the Italian language, and a recurring verb in Aru’s vocabulary this season has been ‘resettare’ – to reset. Regardless of how the week plays out in China, Aru admitted that he is indeed itching to begin all over again.
"I can't wait to hit reset," Aru said. "But it’s a reset that will come from a desire to start out strongly once again, and not because I’m completely ‘dead’ in my head now. Physically, I haven’t been good, but my mindset is good and that’s the important thing."