Fabio Aru (Astana) underlined his form ahead of Il Lombardia by placing third at Milano-Torino. The Italian champion followed the early moves on the final haul up Superga, and though he was unable to track Rigoberto Uran's winning attack, he held off Nairo Quintana to claim the final step on the podium.
Aru placed 5th overall at the Tour de France in July but struggled at the Vuelta a España, where he dropped to 13th in the final week of racing. Despite admitting to fatigue in the final week of the Vuelta, Aru opted to extend his season until Il Lombardia, and showed improving form over the past week in Italy.
"I am pretty happy with the result. It is nice to take a podium place in such a big race with a great history. During the whole of the last week, I felt like I am improving step by step," Aru said.
Aru's Astana team were active throughout the race, with Estonian stagiaire Karl Patrick Lauk delegated to enter the day's early break. Luis Leon Sanchez worked prominently on Aru's behalf on the finishing circuit around Turin and Superga, shutting down an ambitious solo move from Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors).
"I felt good in the race, whereas at the Giro dell'Emilia I had suffered on the ramps of the San Luca," Aru told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "At Tre Valli Varesine, even though the course wasn't very suited to me, I finished at the front. This time, I asked my teammates to make an effort to close down the break. We had put a stagiaire up there, the Estonian Lauk. He's only 20 years old, so compared to him, I'm already starting to feel a bit old…"
Aru has raced Milano-Torino every year since he turned professional, placing third in 2015 and fourth in 2014. "My first time was in 2012, when my idol Alberto Contador won. When I saw him alongside me in the race, it seemed like I was dreaming," Aru said.
The Sardinian's consistency on the haul to Superga has never quite transferred to the longer distance of Il Lombardia, where 9th place in 2014 remains his best performance. In 2015, of course, an on-form Aru missed Il Lombardia altogether to ride the Tour of Almaty at the behest of his Astana team.
"Now I am looking forward to Il Lombardia. It's quite difficult to say what will happen on Saturday, because there are a lot of favourites, who are in really good shape. I will try to do my best and let's see how it will be," said Aru, who pointed to Uran, Quintana and his former teammate Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) as contenders for the win in Como on Saturday afternoon. "I'd certainly like to make some attacks. I'd like to make a move, give a signal. We'll see."
Il Lombardia is likely to be Aru's final race in the colours of Astana. The 27-year-old has been with the team since he turned professional in 2012, but is expected to join UAE Team Emirates in 2018, though the transfer has yet to be formally announced. UAE Team Emirates has already confirmed the arrivals of Dan Martin and Alexander Kristoff for next season.