This week's Tour de San Luis will be the first race of the year for young Fabio Aru, who will be supporting Vincenzo Nibali over the course of the week-long stage race. Aru is a young climber that is destined for big heights in pro cycling even though he only started racing on the road in 2009.
The first time that Fabio Aru name was mentioned in the North American media was when he was fighting an uphill battle against budding American star Joe Dombrowski in this year's Giro Bio (Baby Giro). Dombrowski showed his talent by flying away on the Monte Terminillo on stage 4 with Aru coming in 2nd place, 50 seconds back. After Dombrowski lost his lead to Ilnur Zakarin (now RusVelo) on the following stage and ceded time to Aru, a showdown on the Gavia was in order. Dombrowski took off with 12 kilometers to go and gained a 40 second advantage while Aru was putting in everything he had in his wake. A duel formed on the slopes of the ethereal mountain; Dombrowski checking Aru's progress over every switchback while the Italian was pushing the American to his absolute limit. Dombrowski won by 46 seconds and sealed the GC by 25 seconds over Aru, becoming the first American to win the race. While Aru was just being introduced to an American audience, his talents had made him one of the hottest commodities in Europe and gained him a World Tour contract with Astana.
Aru was born San Gavino Monreale, a small town on the island of Sardegna (Sardinia) that is known for their saffron (they harvest 60% of Italy's entire production) , and spent his adolescent years nestled in the mountains in Villacidro. Aru spent his younger years playing tennis and then soccer and found his love for the bike by chance when he was around 15 years old. With the help of his parents, Aru saved up for a race bike and began to train, concentrating on mountain biking and cyclocross. With the help of Andrea Cevenini, Aru raced a full cyclocross schedule that included the European Championship and World Cup races. His crowning achievement on the off-road side was his participation in the junior cyclocross worlds in Treviso in 2008, where he raced to a solid 26th place, ahead of names such as Lars van der Haar and Zach McDonald.
As Aru came to the end of his junior career, he was asked by Olivano Locatelli to try out the road with his Palazzago team for the 2009 season. Locatelli is an absolute legend in the Italian amateur scene as a director and coach. Locatelli directed and coached the likes of Ivan Gotti, Wladimir Belli, Fabio Casartelli, Giovanni Lombardi, Yaroslav Popovych, Paolo Savoldelli, Dario Frigo, Gianluca Bortolami and the list goes on. (Link for a more exhaustive list) Locatelli sent dozens of riders into the pro ranks but he is not without skeletons in his own closet. Aru accepted his offer but his progress was slow at first. As he only raced mountain bikes and 'cross up to that point, Aru had no pack skills and was nervous and intimidated in the bunch. While results were thin, Aru did show promise going uphill, as shown with his 3rd place in the famous uphill Bassano-Monte Grappa, a race won by the likes of Bartali, Simoni and Cunego.
'Il Scalatore' emerges
With a full year of road under his belt, 2010 was a better year for Aru as he became more comfortable in the peloton and was able to show his strength though he was still prone to rookie mistakes. Aru said it himself, in an interview with Tuttobici at the end of 2011, that he was prone to making bold attacks at 50 kilometers to go and by the time he was at 10km to go, he would be running on no energy. Aru rode to a solid 13th place overall in his inaugural Baby Giro, putting in a decent showing against a strong Colombian squad. He followed up this performance with strong late summer where he went 4th overall at the mountainous Giro Ciclistico della Valle d'Aosta and 2nd at the difficult Trofeo Gianfranco Bianchin behind a more experienced Robert Vrecer (now Euskaltel).
With two years of solid road riding now behind him, Aru began to show the promise that Olivano Locatelli saw in him as a precocious junior. Aru started off with a bang in the spring of 2011 by going 2nd overall in the Toscana - Coppa delle Nazioni Nations Cup race but this was not without heartbreak. On the final stage, Aru was in the leader's jersey when he crashed in the final sprint. As he was on the same time as Georg Preidler (now Argos-Shimano), Preidler won the overall on a countback and Aru was in tears as he crossed the line. Aru went and finished 4th overall at that year's Giro Bio, finishing within a minute of winner, Mattia Cattaneo (now Lampre-Merida).
Aru won the Bassano-Monte Grappa race:
Aru continued his winning ways at the Giro Ciclistico della Valle d'Aosta. After Nikita Novikov grabbed an early lead with some impressive climbing on stage 2, Aru clawed back time on two more mountainous stages to leave a 30 second gap to close on the final mountain time trail. With experience beyond his years, Aru smashed the competition on the 9.2 kilometer test, beating the likes of Kenny Ellisonde (now FDJ) and Joe Dombrowski, and sealed up the overall classification. Aru was coming of age and his results were paying off. The young Sardinian made a verbal agreement with Astana for a two-year neo-pro contract for 2013-14 along with the later half of 2012.
2012 was a season of two halves for Aru with the end of his U23 career and the beginning of his professional career with Astana. Aru began the year by winning the Toscana - Coppa delle Nazioni Nations Cup race overall over Tim Wellens (now Lotto-Belisol) and Francesco Manuel Bongiorno (now Bardiani). Aru followed it up with his 2nd overall to Dombrowski at the Baby Giro. Aru capped off his U23 career with an impressive overall win at the Giro Ciclisto della Valle d'Aosta, taking the GC by a comfortable 3'25.
After his triumph at Valle d'Aosta, Aru headed to altitude with his new Astana team to the US Pro Cycling Challenge. Aru took his chances on stage 6 and joined the breakaway that took the race all the way to the line. While not able to win the stage, Aru took 2nd place on the stage and showed some of the climbing talent that took him to great heights in the U23 ranks.
How far will Aru be able to go? While he is certainly talented, he does have limiting factors that will hurt him if he wants to go for a Grand Tour victory. While his talent as a climber is undeniable, his time trialling is an unknown factor unless the course is uphill. Also, even though his attacking has become more refined, he still has an itchy trigger finger and if he attacks too soon in the pro ranks, it will not be as forgiving as in the amateurs. There is also the question of Astana being the best place for Aru to develop. While the team has become nearly half Italian under Guiseppe Martinelli, there have not been many cases of good development on the team. There is also a trend with Italians that make the jump to the World Tour straight out of the amateur ranks that have been slow to develop. In any case, I would keep my eye on Aru as he races in the Tour de San Luis this week and beyond.
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First Photo: by Petit Brun used under Commercial Commons BY-NA-SA 2.0