Words by Sadhbh O’Shea | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com
Fabio Aru’s sudden departure during the opening week of last year’s Tour de France marked the end of a difficult period for the Italian. A former winner of the Vuelta a España and once viewed as the next big thing in Grand Tour racing, Aru has struggled to live up to that early promise in recent years.
Indeed, that Vuelta win in 2015 was the last time Aru made it to the podium in a three-week race. His best result since was fifth overall at the 2017 Tour de France, where he also claimed his last win with an impressive victory atop Planche des Belles Filles in the jersey of Italian national champion (a win I should have seen in person but missed as I’d sent myself to hospital after splitting my hand open near the press room at the foot of the climb). He’s shown flashes of performance in the intervening years at UAE Team Emirates, but it has been few and far between.
Some of Aru’s travails have been down to injuries, such as the one he suffered to his knee in a training crash ahead of the 2017 Giro d’Italia, and the problems with his iliac artery that he endured in 2018 and 2019. The knockbacks also appear to have had an impact on his belief in his own abilities, and he described himself as being “stuck in a hole” when he stepped off the bike at last year’s Tour. The situation would not have been helped by the very public criticism he received from his former team manager Giuseppe Saronni, nor would the fraught relationship between the two.
The moment brought an unsatisfying end to what had been a frustrating three-year term at the UAE team for the Italian. It looked as though it might spell the end to Aru’s time in the WorldTour until he was snapped up by the Qhubeka-Assos team in December to bolster their Grand Tour line-up. He was joined by his UAE teammate Sergio Henao, who is also looking to rediscover former promise, and will ride alongside fellow Italian Domenico Pozzovivo.
There’s a certain frisson of excitement that comes with the beginning of a new cycling season. The ups and downs of the previous year have been set aside and the new season is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Nowhere is this truer than for riders who have swapped teams during the winter.
By moving to the South African squad, Aru has been removed from a high-pressure environment to one where he’s likely to be awarded more freedom with fewer expectations. That’s not to say the team won’t want him to perform, but the pressure will be far lower. After years of being seemingly out at sea, the contract could prove to be a lifeline for Aru and his career.
The expanded freedom within his new team has already been evident as Aru contested some cyclo-cross races for the first time since he rode as an under-23. He rode six events in total over the winter before turning his focus back to the road, describing himself as feeling “like a child doing his first races”.
“It was an experience that allowed me to restart and I really needed it,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport afterwards. “I would do it a thousand times over.”
The brief venture back to the muddy fields of cyclo-cross may feel like a small thing but it’s more than just the time on the bike. For a rider who has endured a mentally taxing three years, racing just for fun and rediscovering your love for it can do wonders for morale.
Aru’s racing calendar for 2021 has not been made public yet, nor have his main targets, so it’s not yet clear which part of the year he is aiming to peak for. He has made his first appearances on the road for Qhubeka-Assos in France this month at the Tour de la Provence and the Tour des Alpes Maritimes. His performances have hardly blown anyone out of the water but there’s a long season ahead.
Racing with the limited resources that Qhubeka-Assos has in terms of rider firepower, Aru is unlikely to contest a Grand Tour victory but a top-five place or a stage win at any one of the three is not out of the question if he can get his form right. After battling against himself for much of the last three years, it would be great to see Aru find something of his former glories.
If you enjoyed reading this, why not take a look at our review of the 2020 season,
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