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Fabio Aru: 'It is the details that matter'

Mark Bailey
21 Jun 2016

Having proved his Grand Tour pedigree at last year’s Vuelta, Fabio Aru talks to Cyclist about leading Astana at the Tour de France.

The molten evening sun is beginning to dissolve behind the Teide volcano – a stark 3,718m snow-covered cone on the island of Tenerife – and with the temperature plummeting and the daylight dwindling, Fabio Aru is safely ensconced at the Parador de las Canadas del Teide, an isolated mountain lodge nestled in the vast sunken caldera that surrounds the volcano.

Perched at an altitude of 2,140m, deep in the Teide national park – where twisted pinnacles of red rock, fields of pumice gravel and solidified black rivers of lava fill the alien landscape – this is the hotel the world’s best cyclists, including Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome, use as a base when completing gruelling bouts of altitude training.

Aru, already a Grand Tour winner after his gutsy triumph in the Vuelta a Espana last September, is in the middle of his own 15-day training camp in preparation for his first assault on the Tour de France this summer [when we conducted the interview before the Dauphine]. He’ll only turn 26 on the opening weekend of the Tour, but the Italian has been given the responsibility of leading the Astana team in the world’s most famous bike race, ahead of his teammate and the 2014 Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali.

In the rarefied world at the top of the Tour de France general classification, it is often the fine details that decide who will ultimately stand on the top step of the podium in Paris, and Aru is here to sculpt and refine his prodigious natural talent. A few days ago he completed a seven-hour ride including 4,700m of climbing. The next morning saw him performing bodyweight strength drills and stretching exercises in the hotel gym. Tonight, in this mountain-top sanctuary miles from Tenerife’s coastal resorts, there’s nothing to tempt him away from a long night of sleep, during which his body will adapt to the thin air by producing more red blood cells to ferry oxygen around his body, enhancing his fitness and stamina over time. Tomorrow, after a protein-rich breakfast of eggs and turkey, he’ll hit the steep volcanic roads again. 

‘The Vuelta win was a big step in my career, but the reason I was able to make the step up from contender to winner was through better attention to detail,’ explains Aru as he relaxes in the hotel restaurant. With his strikingly lean 6ft, 66kg frame, wild curly hair and face-splitting grin, Aru could be mistaken for a young student on holiday, but his words are spoken with the precision and composure of an older man. ‘I know it is this attention to detail in my training and preparation that will make the difference. Even the very best riders have to train a lot and pay attention to every part of their preparation, health and fitness. Training at altitude here in Tenerife is one part of that preparation. It is the details that matter.’ 

Life has changed immeasurably for the humble cyclist from Sardinia following his triumph at the Vuelta. At the UCI Cycling Gala in Abu Dhabi last October, he found himself sharing a stage with two titans of pro cycling in Contador and Froome. When he returned home to Sardinia later that month, thousands of fans flocked to the ‘Pedal Aru’ sportive organised by the ‘Fabio Aru Fan Club’, where he enjoyed tucking into roast pork and chatting to fans. On a team training camp in Calpe last December, he was surprised to be recognised by the owner of a rural café.  

Great expectations 

‘There is a pressure that comes with this attention, but the best way to answer my fans and to thank people who look at me as a symbol is to put 100 per cent of my attention into my training so that I can be prepared for my next challenges,’ he says. ‘In particular, I have a very close relationship with the region of Villacidro in Sardinia where I am from, and it was very special to go home to such a warm welcome after my win at the Vuelta. To see so many people on bikes, from children to older people, was a big satisfaction for me. When I see that influence, it is a big motivation. I am thankful for the attention from the fans who support me and the journalists who come to talk to me. I know 2016 is an important year for me with the Tour de France and the Olympics and I want to do more.’ 

Aru is too sensible to make bold predictions about his first Tour campaign. Back in 1965, the Italian Felice Gimondi won the Tour at his first attempt, but Aru has some experienced opponents in his path this summer. For now, he’s simply focusing on being the best he can be. ‘I am very satisfied with the work we’ve been doing here in Tenerife,’ he continues. ‘We are a very close group here – with my teammates Paolo Tiralongo and Dario Cataldo and others – and we are working hard, but there are other guys – Diego Rosa, Luis Leon Sanchez and Alexey Lutsenko – who are not here but who are also part of my Tour de France training group. I cannot predict anything, as this is my first Tour. I want to know it and experience it. I have huge respect for the Tour as a race and the riders who have won it in the past, so let’s see what happens. But for sure I will do everything to be prepared at my maximum level.’

From apprentice to master

Aru joined Astana in 2012 and with Nibali following suit a year later, he has enjoyed an enviable apprenticeship, training alongside and learning from the great Italian champion. Nibali won the Giro in 2013 and the Tour in 2014 for Astana, to complement his 2010 Vuelta title with Liquigas. ‘To be in the same team as Vincenzo has been a great component in my growth as a cyclist. I’ve trained with him but also grown up with him. On previous training camps on Teide, I’ve honestly learned something from him every day in terms of his preparation and how he conducts himself.’ 

Respectful and thankful though he may be, Aru is clearly now ready to step out of Nibali’s shadow and write his own story. ‘When you win a Grand Tour the goals change and you start to aim higher and higher,’ he says.

Aru is an explosive, attacking climber in the mould of other exciting Italian Grand Tour winners, stretching back from Nibali and Marco Pantani to the likes of Gimondi and Fausto Coppi. Astana manager Giuseppe Martinelli says Aru is ‘a pure climber who can attack on the big climbs and make big differences’.

The Sardinian is acutely aware that Italian fans like their heroes to compete with flair and aggression and he doesn’t plan to disappoint. ‘I am really honoured that people think of me as a future champion and that I can put in these kind of legendary, big performances, but at the same time I am very practical and my view is just to concentrate on my training, which is how I am able to make those performances possible.

‘As an Italian, Pantani in particular is like a symbol to me, a really great rider who everybody appreciated. But to be honest, my idol – the guy I aspired to be like – was Alberto Contador. My first real memory of the Tour was when Contador won it in 2009. He was the guy who most inspired me when I watched races.’

Born in San Gavino Monreale in Sardinia on 3rd July 1990, during the summer of the Italia ’90 football World Cup, it was perhaps inevitable that Aru’s first love was football. He enjoyed kicking a ball around near his home in the mountain town of Villacidro and was a talented tennis player too. Mountain biking and cyclocross were his earliest two-wheeled pursuits. ‘I started with mountain biking in 2005 and for the first four years it was like a game – I really was doing it purely for fun. But then I started improving and I began to do mountain biking and cyclocross racing with the Italian national team, going on to represent Italy at the junior cyclocross world championships.’

A different perspective

Aru is convinced that his background in other cycling disciplines has given him valuable skills that are still helping him today, such as bike handling and explosive power. ‘Starting from mountain biking or cyclocross can give any athlete a different level of knowledge and skill, like how to control and use the bike in a much better way. Just look at Elia Viviani [at Team Sky], who came from a track background and is now doing well on the road. Your progress always requires discipline and character, but your early experiences also play a part.’ 

It was Aru’s cyclocross coach Fausto Scotti who first saw in the young Sicilian a potential that could best be realised on the road. ‘He said I should try road cycling, so in 2008 I entered a race called the Giro della Lunigiana in the north of Italy,’ recalls Aru. It was during this race that Olivano Locatelli, director of the Palazzago amateur team, noticed his talent. He took Aru’s number but scribbled down the wrong digits by mistake, and almost an entire year passed before they were in contact again. This time around, Locatelli wasted no time in offering him a place on his team.

Joining Palazzago saw Aru move to Bergamo on the Italian mainland, and it was a difficult transition for the 19-year-old. Aru suffered periods of homesickness and self-doubt, and often considered returning home to Sardinia, but his hard work eventually paid off. He won the Giro della Valle d’Aosta in 2011 and 2012 and placed second in the 2012 ‘Baby Giro’ – the most important race on the Italian amateur scene.

‘Since 2009, when I switched to the road, I have become more serious and professional,’ he says. ‘With Palazzago I learned how to obtain good results and how to handle massive days of work on the bike in training. A lot of what I have achieved since those days is just a consequence of all my hard work and training and all those lessons about sacrifice and the art of winning that I experienced in my time at Palazzago.’ 

After joining Astana in 2012, Aru was quick to taste success. In 2013, at his first Giro d’Italia, he helped guide Nibali to victory, placing 42nd overall himself. ‘It was an incredible experience because if you are a teammate of the winner it means you have been present in the final moments of most of the important stages,’ he says. ‘It was very hard but very exciting.’ 

The following year Aru placed third in the Giro behind Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán, taking his first Grand Tour stage win in the process after scampering away on the climb to the Montecampione ski station on Stage 15. ‘It was an incredible experience, as back then winning a Grand Tour stage was my most important goal. On winning that stage, my public image changed and my goals started to get bigger. It was a turning point in my life and my career.’ A few months later he won Stages 11 and 18 in the Vuelta, finishing fifth overall. 

A trio of Grand Tour stage wins is already more than most pros achieve in their lifetimes, but Aru’s progression would continue into 2015, his most successful season to date. The Sardinian won Stages 19 and 20 of the Giro on his way to finishing second overall, then later in the year he edged out Tom Dumoulin and Joaquim Rodriguez to claim victory in the Vuelta.

‘My family have always supported me throughout my career so that win was very satisfying for me and for them,’ he says. ‘They were following me before and will follow me in the future but I think that first one will be special for them.’

Tour dreams

Having been selected to lead Astana’s Tour de France campaign this summer ahead of Nibali, Aru knows he has to deliver a strong performance. ‘The biggest difference for me this year is that to do well at the Tour de France I have to divide the season into phases,’ he says. ‘After the training and the Classics, I have a period of rest before another training block and then the Tour de France. I have to learn to manage my schedule better so that I can be at the maximum level when I arrive in France.’ 

Despite his relative youth, Aru is aware of the need to behave with the authority of a leader. But he remains determined to do things his own way. ‘My relationship with the other riders hasn’t changed much, I am still the same person as last year and I still have huge respect for my teammates. All I ask is that everyone gives 100% to be the best they can be and I will do the same.’ 

As a proud Italian, the road race at the Rio 2016 Olympics is another important priority for Aru. After enjoying a holiday in Zanzibar over the winter, he went to Rio to recce the course in January. ‘It looks like a very difficult course but I think this could help the Italian riders because we like climbing. To represent my country at the Olympics would be fabulous and although it is my second priority behind the Tour de France, it is still an important goal for me this year.’ 

Throughout our interview, high-altitude winds have been raking across the lunar landscape that surrounds the hotel and howling against the windows of the restaurant. So it’s no surprise that when we head outside for some photographs before the sun finally disappears, it’s a matter of minutes before Aru dashes back in, concerned that the cold will be bad for his health. The Italian knows that in the most important year of his career to date, he has to focus on every element of his training, nutrition, rest and recovery – and that includes not freezing on the flanks of a giant volcano for a magazine. As this talented young rider explains, with an apologetic grin: ‘It is the details that matter.’

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