The 2016 Tour de France has gone into the books as the first major setback of Fabio Aru's career. But it is easy to overlook that he still was harbouring hopes of a top-five finish – or more – as his Astana team led the dwindling yellow jersey group on the approach to the final climb of the race, the Col de Joux Plane.
After a low-key start, Aru had rekindled his ambitions in the Tour's dying days, but his resurgence was abruptly extinguished beneath leaden sheets of rain in the Haute-Savoie. Distanced almost as soon as the climb began, Aru slowed almost to a halt by the summit, and crossed the line more than 17 minutes down, dropping from sixth to 13th place overall.
In the immediate aftermath, neither Aru nor Astana were quite able to explain how his race had unravelled so dramatically in such a short space of time, though in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport during the winter, the Sardinian said that he had since identified the error that had proved so costly. He added, however, that he was not minded to reveal it publicly, and at the Tour of Oman this week, Aru simply grinned when he was asked if he had changed his stance in the meantime.
"It remains a mystery," Aru said. "It was a season in which I learned a lot of things. There are some things that should remain between an athlete and his team, and the important thing is to learn something from your errors."
Throughout his young career, Aru has tended to base his seasons squarely around the Grand Tours, seeming to treat most races as mere preparation en route to a loftier objective. He has also tended to start his season later and race more sparingly than most of his rivals, and it is telling that of the seven races Aru has won as a professional to date, only one – a stage at last year's Critérium du Dauphiné – has come outside of a three-week stage race.
The Giro d'Italia forms the centrepiece of Aru's 2017 campaign, but he will reach the start of the corsa rosa in his native Sardinia with rather more race days in his legs than the 13 he had compiled before the 2014 edition or the 15 he clocked up in the opening months of the following season. After starting his season this week at the Tour of Oman, Aru will be in action again in Abu Dhabi next week, before lining out at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Croatia ahead of the Giro.
"Apart from last year, I've started my seasons quite late. There've been years when I started my season in Catalunya or Paris-Nice against people who already had two months in their legs so it was hard to get results – although two years ago, I still got sixth in Catalunya so I was already going quite well by that point," Aru said.
"But it's true that this year I'm starting my year earlier, with Oman and Abu Dhabi, and logically I'll have a couple of more races in my legs in the hope that I'll get to Tirreno-Adriatico with a good rhythm, something I wouldn't have had in other years."
Even by the standards of self-denial seemingly de rigueur for a Grand Tour contender in the current era, Aru tends to spend more time cloistered away at training camps than most.
"That's how cycling is today. It's been like that for the five years of my career," Aru said. As well as Astana's two collective training camps in Calpe during the winter, he was in the Sierra Nevada in recent weeks putting the finishing touches to his preparations ahead of his two weeks of racing in the Middle East. He has clocked up the kilometres but does not know how that will translate into early-season race form.
"It's hard to predict how my form will be. I've been testing well but competition with others is something different, and I'll see where I'm at," Aru said. "I've certainly put in a good winter, and I'm happy with that, but I need to measure myself against the others now."
Race favourite Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) is the obvious yardstick for Aru in Oman, though he downplayed the notion that he might also be pitting himself against an illustrious absentee. Vincenzo Nibali, now at Bahrain-Merida, won the Tour of Oman a year ago as he built towards Giro d'Italia victory, but Aru was keen to avoid comparisons with his former stable-mate.
"Vincenzo had a different schedule to mine. He'd already raced in Argentina, whereas this is my first race," Aru said. "But I'm certainly curious to see how I'm going."
Expectations for the Giro d'Italia
Despite the presence of Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot et al in a particularly deep line-up of Giro d'Italia contenders, Aru will inevitably be the centre of attention when the race sets out from Alghero on May 5, for the first of three stages in his native Sardinia. Even if he insists that it remains a Giro like any other.
"There are lots of things that are special, like the fact that it starts from Sardinia and it's the 100th Giro, but I'm concentrating on the three weeks of racing, the same as I would for any Giro, Tour or Vuelta," Aru claimed.
After placing third in 2014 and second in 2015, Aru has left himself a slender margin for improvement on his return to the Giro, but he carefully refuses to state that anything less than final overall victory would constitute a disappointment.
"The important thing is to ride strongly. Winning is obviously the highest achievement, but there've been years when riders haven't won but still provided a lot of spettacolo," Aru said. "Vedremo, dai…. We'll see."
On the back of a disappointing 2016 campaign and now in the final year of his existing contract at Astana, 2017 promises to be a pivotal season in Aru's career, but the 26-year-old insists that he is carrying the burden of outright team leadership lightly.
"My mentality is tranquillissima. I've never been calmer. I've put in three months of hard work over the winter, on the bike and off it," Aru said. "But, obviously, results will bring serenity too."