After a disastrous 2018 in which he faltered at virtually every turn, Fabio Aru is quietly attempting to put his career back on track. Earlier this month, at a wind tunnel testing facility at Silverstone, the UAE Team Emirates rider sat down with Cyclingnews to talk about last year, if lessons were learned, and where he hopes to be when this year's Giro d'Italia swings into range.
Aru has just wrapped up a batch of aerodynamic tests on his time trial back when he walks down the hallway of the Formula 1 facility.
As his teammate Dan Martin limbers up and steps into the tunnel, Aru, accompanied by his press officer, takes a seat. Relaxed and personable, he's even willing – at times – to show off some of the English which he's been brushing up on over the winter.
"My winter went well," Aru says, ending his statement with an inflection that suggests he's asking if his English is up to scratch.
"I trained well and never really lost any time. My problem was last season; I finished the year very tired and so I needed some time to recover and bounce back. But so far, all my numbers, they are looking good and improving. But last season was difficult and so I'm not at 100 per cent right now."
Describing 2018 as difficult is an understatement when it comes to Aru's first season post-Astana and under the banner of UAE Team Emirates. Last year the 28-year-old had ambitions of competing at the Giro d'Italia but he was a shadow of himself, ghosting through the first two weeks before a brief resurrection in the Rovereto time trial – where he was also penalised 20 seconds for drafting – paved the way for a complete capitulation and a DNF during the mountain stages that followed.
A comeback of sorts followed at the Vuelta a Espana but the 23rd place was of little consolation for a rider who had won the race in 2015, and whose career trajectory had been glittered with glimpses of form on only a few occasions since.
The blockbuster move to UAE Team Emirates at the end of 2017 was billed as a turning point from which Aru would become Italy's leading Grand Tour contender, however, the opening act saw him fluff his lines just when the spotlight and the gaze of the audience was at its most intense. Rumours spread that the team were looking to offload him, that his training had been sub-par and that he was no longer a stage racing force. There were, apparently, too many outside influences and Aru appeared in a position no rider ever wishes to themselves in. He was vulnerable. He was weak. And results – the only currency in which a professional rider can justify their position – were nowhere to be seen. The move to UAE looked like a disaster.
"I give everything when I train and race but if you don't know that then it's easy to be judgmental," he admits.
"If I watched myself on television last year like most people watch riders, I'd also say: 'he's not been training, he's just enjoying life.' It's strange but your body doesn't always do or reply how you'd like. But I think that sooner or later you're repaid for the hard work you do."
One key question is whether Aru has learned anything from his previous year. He laughs even before answering.
"Nothing," he says, looking over at the press officer as if to emphasise the point.
"To be honest," he adds in a more serious manner, "when your season is as bad as mine was, there's not much you can learn. I've just got bad memories. I don't think it was just one problem but many problems. My season was really bad. I don't think finishing 40th in a Grand Tour is my level; it's wasn't my real level."
The move from Astana, a team that had nurtured Aru's talent, was clearly a factor. Questions were also raised regarding Aru's decision to bring former teammate and mentor Paolo Tiralongo with him to UAE.
"I changed teams, it was difficult to adapt to things, there were some problems… but the winter went well and so there'll be time to get better.
"To be honest, I don't like talking about last year," he bristles, this time in Italian when the element of coaching is brought up.
"A lot of people have asked me and they keep asking me but I don't want to talk about people who are no longer here or about what happened. I just want to focus on the new season."
It's not just a fresh start for Aru, but for his team too. After two seasons of lukewarm results, the squad finally began investing in a more experienced and robust staff. Alan Peiper was brought in to add discipline and structure, while Dr. Inigo San Millan, who worked at Slipstream, now oversees the health and training of the roster. The team previously invested all their funds in talent on the road. Now they're taking a more pragmatic approach. As those in the wind tunnel can attest, you can have the fastest cars on the circuit but if they're not properly fuelled you'll be stuck on the grid.
San Millan is at the wind tunnel test, and he's a ball of energy. Zipping between computer monitors that display vast amounts of data and the athletes as they warm down between tests, he's clearly a worthwhile addition to the squad.
It's early in the relationship between coach and athlete, but Aru and Millan will come to know each other greatly in the coming months. Aru will even travel to Colorado, where San Millan is permanently based, for three weeks of altitude training after the Volta a Catalunya. The Italian made his professional debut in the US at the 2012 Tour of Colorado, and while the finer points of the training camp need to be ironed out in terms of a final base, Aru is looking forward to what sounds like an adventure rather than a chore.
"It's going to be a new experience for me. I went to Colorado in 2012 and it was my first race as a pro rider. I've been to Tenerife, Etna, and Sierra Nevada in the last few years but Inigo lives close to Boulder, and I'll stay close by, probably in Vail," Aru says.
"But I like working with Inigo and all the staff. They're very qualified and experienced. The best thing is the good relationship we've created. I don't want to go into details of the training and sporting aspects because they're very important and so it's right to keep them a professional secret. But they're great people to get on with, they're very careful in the way they look after us."
As this was written, news filtered through that Aru had abandoned Paris-Nice on stage 3. He went into the race without pressure on his shoulders and with the GC responsibilities on Sergio Henao's shoulders. He too would falter but in the grand scheme of things Aru has more important objectives as the season unfolds. This was a rider once feted as a potential Tour de France contender and although he has won a stage and held the yellow jersey, he has never truly lived up to those lofty expectations, placing 5th overall in 2017. This year, however, the main necessity is for Aru to rediscover the formula of a competitive rider. An early setback at Paris-Nice will not define a season.
"I can't explain how important it is to be back to my best but to win a Grand Tour is not the only important thing. Fighting to win is the important thing. Not only GC but also for stages. I have to fight, fight, fight with the other top guys, with guys like Nibali and Dumoulin. You can win and you can lose but it's important to be up there. I'd be okay with second, third or fifth, I wouldn't like to be 40th or 50th. I want to fight to win. Of course, the media tend to build you up when you win and then quickly knock you down it when things don't go well. I just try to always keep my feet on the ground."
After being knocked down in 2018 Aru is back on his feet. Time will tell how steady and grounded he has become.