With the start of the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia just 100 days away, Fabio Aru (Astana) has suggested that 10 riders have a real chance of overall victory. He includes himself in the list of possible pink jersey winners, claiming he has learnt from the mistakes that saw him struggle in 2016 after planning his season around the Tour de France.
"I think there will be a lot of favourites all at the same level when we get to the start of the Giro d'Italia, 10 or so riders could actually win it. As well as myself, I see Quintana, Nibali, Pinot, Mollema and Kruijswijk up there, just to list a few names," Aru told Gazzetta dello Sport in a long interview about his ambitions for the 2017 season.
"Underestimating someone would be a big mistake, as Kruijswijk reminded us last year. He wasn't considered a favourite at the start but he went close to victory."
Aru's poor 2016 season has perhaps downgraded his chances of winning the Giro d'Italia but he has tried to learn from his mistakes, which included over-racing in 2015, when he won the Vuelta a Espana but kept competing until the end of October. He won the 2015 Vuelta a Espana, but failed to back up that result in 2016, only winning a stage at the Criterium du Dauphine.
He started 2016 on the back foot and never managed to pull things around.
"It was a lean year for results but I think it was a good a year. I've learnt a lot from 2016, I think you learn more from a bad year compared to the good years. I've got to know myself much better," he explained.
"Now I know who my friends are and I've made some choices. We've analysed my racing and my problems, and I'm optimistic for the future."
Aru has rarely gone into detail of why he cracked on the final mountain stage of the Tour de France. He lost 20 minutes and slipped from sixth to thirteenth in the overall classification.
"I've preferred not to talk about it all but it's obvious that there are some reasons for what happened," he admitted.
"I played catch up all season, things started badly and I never got my season on track. Last year I suffered with some stomach problems but now I've sorted them out. Sometimes you tell yourself to carry on despite some minor problems, but when you get to a certain point you've got to act to avoid things getting worse."
Aru recently underwent minor surgery to treat turbinate hypertrophy in his nose, resolving another minor issue and help his breathing.
Starting in Oman, focused on the Giro d'Italia
Aru is already back training and is building gradually for the 2017 season. He will head to the Sierra Nevada in Spain for altitude training before making his season debut at the Tour of Oman on February 14.
His racing programme is built around peaking for the Giro d'Italia and will include the Abu Dhabi Tour, Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, possibly Milan-San Remo, a long training camp at altitude on Mount Teide, and then the Tour of Croatia as his final race before the Giro d'Italia starts in Sardinia on May 5.
Aru lives in Lugano but hails from Sardinia, meaning the Grande Partenza on the island will be a special moment in his career.
"I rarely get to go back to Sardinia but this year the Giro is going to be extra special for me. It's also going to be a chance for me to make up for my disappointing 2016. The 100th Giro will be special for lots of reasons, it's all very motivating."
Aru helped Vincenzo Nibali win the 2013 Giro d'Italia, then finished third overall in 2014 and second in 2015. With Nibali now at Bahrain-Merida, the two Italians are rivals after years as teammates.
"We haven't always been close but our relationships has improved and is now good. We sometimes train together, but in races we'll obviously ride for ourselves. Vincenzo's a rival, not an enemy, there's a big difference."