Fabio Aru (Astana) began the Giro del Trentino with just nine days of racing in his legs but his sixth place on the mountain finish to San Giacomo di Brentonico, 26 seconds behind stage winner Edoardo Zardini (Bardiani-CSF) and only seven seconds behind new race leader Cadel Evans (BMC), indicated he is an overall contender and a name to watch for at the Giro d'Italia.
The 23-year-old Sardinian finished 42nd in the 2013 Giro d'Italia but impressed until being struck by a stomach virus. He recovered to finish fifth on the final mountain stage in the snow at Tre Cime di Lavaredo, ahead of Evans and Michele Scarponi. As an Under 23 rider he won the mountainous Giro della Valle in 2011 and 2012 and was second in the GiroBio stage race behind the USA's Joe Dombrowski, who now rides for Team Sky.
Aru made his professional debut with Astana as a stagiaire in August 2012 at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and finished second behind Rory Sutherland on stage six.
"It was a fast finale to the stage and Zardini got away from us. But I'm still up there and haven't given up on doing something overall," he told Cyclingnews before climbing on the podium to pull on the best young rider's white jersey.
"It was the big effort I've made after training at altitude but it I think it went pretty well. It kind of showed that we've worked well in training and now we can only hope things will go even better in the rest of this race and at the Giro d'Italia."
Aru's performance and late aggression showed he is not simply a domestique for Scarponi. Indeed he has dropped several hints that he will ride for himself at the Giro d'Italia while also trying to help Scarponi.
Scarponi finished 12th on the stage, some 15 seconds behind Aru and is now ninth overall, while Aru is sixth.
"I'd like to do well but Scarponi is the captain here just as he is for the Giro d'Italia. However that doesn't exclude my chances. I want to try to stay with him and do something good too," he warned.
Aru will start the Giro d'Italia on May 9 with just a total of 14 days of racing in his legs if he also rides Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday to help Vincenzo Nibali. He'd rather feel fresh than tired as the first Grand Tour of the season approaches.
"I think I'll be fine, even with so little racing. The coaches have decided this preparation and I trust them," he explained.
"We've done lots of work, even simulating stage races in training. I've only been a professional for just over a season and so I'm not used to a heavy racing programme. Because I'm still young, the team has preferred to hold me back from the big races for now. I'm ok with that because I feel ready for the Giro d'Italia."