In the absence of Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru carries Italian hopes at this Giro d’Italia and, a few weeks shy of his 28th birthday, he knows only too well that his career cannot be indefinitely couched in the future tense. Italy expects.
"Absolutely, I think that too," Aru said in Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon. "But in the last few years, I’ve never felt young anyway, because I’ve been riding with a certain level of responsibility. Since 2014, practically, I’ve felt that responsibility, that stress. But I’ve prepared very well for this Giro. I had a big desire to come back to the Giro and now I want to get started."
Aru missed last year's Giro, which set out from his home region of Sardinia, after sustaining a knee injury in a training crash, but he resumed racing in June to claim the Italian title and then place 5th overall at the Tour de France.
On making the switch from Astana to UAE Team Emirates in the off-season, he was initially coy about his 2018 schedule, but it always seemed likely that he would return to the Giro for the first time since he placed second overall three years ago. On that occasion, Aru was beaten by Alberto Contador, who was seeking to claim the Giro-Tour double. This time around, the Sardinian faces two riders with apparent designs on combining yellow and pink, Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
Aru divested Dumoulin of the red jersey on the final weekend the 2015 Vuelta a España to claim overall victory, but last year's Tour stage to La Planche des Belles Filles aside, he has never succeeded in truly discommoding Froome, who is riding the Giro despite returning a positive test for salbutamol on last year’s Vuelta.
"I won’t hold back against Chris, who is a rival I respect. I’ll ride my own race," said Aru, who played with a straight bat when it was suggested he would have to follow the aggressive template of his old teammate Nibali if he is to trouble Froome.
"The mountains are my territory and I'll attack there. But there are moments when you are able to do that, and there are moments when you have to ride more defensively. The objective is to enjoy and to entertain. The final result counts the most, but beautiful attacks also remain in the hearts of the tifosi."
Tour of the Alps
Aru raced against Froome at the recent Tour of the Alps, but he picked out overall winner Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Domenico Pozzovivo (Bahrain-Merida) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) as the most impressive performers across the five days.
"Froome was a little behind, but he was still up there," said Aru, who himself looked some way short of his best, though he still rode to 6th place overall. "I think there are about 15 riders who can realistically aim for a very high place on GC at this Giro."
During his short press conference at the race headquarters on Wednesday afternoon, Aru was asked for his impressions of the Zoncolan and Jafferau climbs, which he scaled in Giri past, and which feature in the demanding second half of this year’s race. He is all too aware, of course, that there are pitfalls aplenty ahead of that mountainous denouement, starting with Friday’s short opening time trial.
Jerusalem’s gridlocked traffic means that riders are unable to test the parcours until the roads are closed on Friday morning, but Aru took the time to walk the sections of the course on Wednesday, paying particular attention to the stiff climb to the finish. Though just 9.7km in length, the circuit could provoke considerable time gaps among the overall contenders, while the heat and possible crosswinds on the two road stages in Israel offer further early complications.
"The first stages are going to be fundamental, we’ve noted that already in training here," Aru said. "We went out on quite difficult roads, with a lot of wind and the temperatures are high. I drank five bottles in 2 hours and 40 minutes, which is normally what I’d take on board in five hours. These three days aren’t to be undervalued."
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