Backstage at the Giro d’Italia team presentation in Belfast, Fabio Aru was so unfettered by media requests that he could sit absent-mindedly scanning his smart phone while his Astana teammate Michele Scarponi provided sound bites and quips for a procession of television crews and reporters.
Three weeks on, however, Aru’s star has risen in ways that he could scarcely have imagined on that drizzly night by the Lagan. His stage victory at Montecampione last week catapulted him into the limelight, and its glare only intensified after he pushed Nairo Quintana (Movistar) closest in Friday’s Monte Grappa mountain time trial.
Aru awoke on Saturday morning to find himself on the front page of Gazzetta dello Sport, under the banner headline "A Stell-aru Giro," while an Italian cycling magazine had even booked itself into the Astana hotel in Prata di Pordenone just to photograph the new star at breakfast as he prepared for the race’s penultimate stage to the Zoncolan.
At the start village in Maniago, the cheers for Aru outstripped those for the maglia rosa Quintana, while at the summit of the fearsome Zoncolan, the so-called Kaiser of Friuli, Aru-mania had reached such heights that his mother and girlfriend were interviewed by the race speaker just as the pink jersey group hit the town of Ovaro in the valley below.
The stage was set, then, for Aru’s assault on the second place of Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), who began the day just 41 seconds clear of the young Sardinian, and who had shown further signs on flagging in Friday’s cronoscalata.
Still suffering from his efforts 24 hours previously, it was instead Aru who faltered on the harsh slopes of the Zoncolan. The infernal rhythm laid down by Quintana’s Movistar team at the base of the climb took its toll, and when Wout Poels took up the baton in support of Uran as the gradient stiffened to 20% with five kilometres remaining, Aru was distanced.
"Today was a very hard stage and we went very hard on the Zoncolan. I was struggling a bit at the bottom but I managed to recover a bit and go up at my own pace," Aru said at the summit, after changing in a heated tent laid on for riders just past the finish line.
Aru wore a doleful mask for the final ramps of the climb, but he was successful in limiting his losses, crossing the line just 16 seconds down on Quintana and Uran. The result was enough to secure third place overall, a little over four minutes down on Quintana. "It’s an immense satisfaction for me and I’m really very happy," Aru said.
Before Aru spoke to reporters, he had first broken away to offer his thanks to his teammate and – by his own description – father-figure Paolo Tiralongo, and he was fulsome in his praise of teammates, sparing a particular thought for a pair of injured absentees.
"I have to thank my whole team, they really put themselves through the wringer for me at this Giro," Aru said. "Jani [Brajkovic] had that fall and he broke his arm and Michele [Scarponi] unfortunately wasn’t able to recover from his injury in the crash, so I want to salute them and wish them all the best for their recovery. And I want to thank all of my teammates for everything they’ve done for me in the last few days."
Aru entered the professional ranks at the end of 2012 already viewed as something of a predestinato thanks to his results as an amateur, but few could have envisaged that he would scale such heights so quickly and in such startling fashion.
Ten years ago, of course, an even younger Italian rider – also under the tutelage of Giuseppe Martinelli – won what was expected to be the first of many Giri. In the decade since, however, Damiano Cunego has never troubled the podium of a Grand Tour and will finish this year’s race almost 50 minutes down in 19th place overall.
After his surprising show of force on this Giro, which came on the back of a build-up that heavily favoured altitude training over racing, Aru knows that the next step will be even more difficult. Repeating the trick when burdened with the weighty expectations from the home media and public – one cartoon on Saturday morning depicted him with angel wings, for instance – has proven an onerous task for many others in the past.
"A good result the Giro is hugely satisfying and proves that all the hard work paid off," Aru said. "But for me, nothing will change because I'll go to races with the same determination as before. I've got a lot of years ahead of me in my career and I've still got to prove myself."