Fabio Aru (Astana) believes he can build on his fifth place at the Tour de France and have a successful Vuelta a España, despite being in the middle of negotiations to decide the next chapter of his career and the team he will ride for in 2018.
The 27-year-old has been widely linked to the UAE Team Emirates squad but has also received an improved offer from the Astana team and secured the backing of the Kazakhstani team for the Vuelta.
As a consequence, Aru has avoided making any formal announcements about his future and has even publicly thanked Astana. He is focused on winning a second Vuelta, knowing that his success of 2015 taught him a lot about Grand Tour racing.
Aru snatched overall victory from Tom Dumoulin in the 2015 Vuelta when he took the red leader's jersey on the last climb of the last mountain stage to Cercedilla. This year, he faces tougher opposition, with Chris Froome (Team Sky) chasing a rare Tour-Vuelta double, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) looking to end his career on a high, and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale), Esteban Chaves, Adam Yates and Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) all real contenders for victory.
"Having won it once gives me an understanding of my chances this year. But, of course, every race is different," Aru told La Repubblica.
"We'll discover exactly how good I am stage by stage, I don't want to make any promises or predictions. I know it'll be a tough race, it'll be the hardest Grand Tour of 2017, with lots of mountain finishes right from the start, that need short but intense efforts. There aren't many big long mountain stages but there are a lot of finishes at 20 per cent."
Aru prepared for the Vuelta at home in Lugano, Switzerland, doing some steady training as he recovered from the fatigue of the Tour de France and the bronchitis that affected him in the final stages. He occasionally crossed paths with his former teammate Nibali but their friendship will be put aside for the next three weeks as they finally become Grand Tour rivals at the Vuelta.
"Vincenzo is a friend but also a big rival and someone to beat," Aru pointed out. "He's a rival when racing because there's no such thing as friendship in races. At best, we could agree to an alliance, but I'm ready to take him on just like everyone else."
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Learning at the Tour, making plans for the future
Aru has not done any reconnaissance of the Vuelta a España route, but he knows that stage 15 will climb the same road where he crashed at speed at a spring training camp in April, thus ending his hopes of riding the 100th Giro d'Italia that started in his native Sardinia.
The crash and subsequent knee injury meant a major change in his race programme, with the Tour de France the new goal. Aru won at La Planche des Belles Filles in the opening week and, despite losing teammates Jakub Fuglsang and Dario Cataldo mid-race, and fighting bronchitis in the final stages, he finished fifth overall in Paris. Aru also wore the yellow jersey for two days after his attack on the finish at Peyragudes in the Pyrenees.
Aru was disappointed to be dropped on the Col de la Galibier on stage 17 and so slip from second overall, but he fought and learnt from what was only his second ride at the Tour de France.
"The Tour is a huge race and needs an enormous mental and physical effort," Aru said. "I'm starting to understand it more: I was 13th in 2016 and fifth this year after wearing the yellow jersey. That's a positive trend and think I've still got a big margin of improvement.
"I think I performed well at the Tour. I raced as I should have done despite all the problems. We lost both Fuglsang and Cataldo at the same moment and that changed things. But when I won the Vuelta, we were down to seven riders right from the start but had a great team spirit."
Team spirit is important to Aru and he knows it is vital during a Grand Tour. Astana refused his initial requests for a significant salary increase and there were reports of tension with team manager Alexander Vinokourov. Aru has played a clever diplomatic game since the Tour, however, mindful that UAE Team Emirates and Trek-Segafredo are both interested in having him as their Grand tour leader for the 2018 and beyond.
Aru thanked Astana for allowing him to ride the Vuelta a España and has put back any formal announcement about his future. He has taken a more direct involvement in his contract negotiations, hiring a Milan-based lawyer to help him rather than one of the well-known cycling agents.
"My relationship with Astana wasn't difficult before the Tour and it isn't now," Aru insisted. "My agent and I are studying a solution for the future and things will be clear pretty soon. Meanwhile there's the Vuelta to deal with and I've got a great team, with a talented young rider like Miguel Angel López alongside me, several other good climbers in the team, and Luis León Sánchez as a team captain. I've got a great chance of doing well. My future starts after Madrid or even after Il Lombardia, the last goal of my season."
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