“Fabio Aru can win this race” murmur the Italian’s hardcore following. “He’s climbed another place” note the believers as the former Vuelta winner creeps towards the top ten just 1:08 behind new leader Simon Yates. Unfortunately, the number of fans who still believe in the Italian is dwindling. You could even argue that nobody truly believes that Aru can have a say on this year’s Vuelta. When did things become so hopeless for Italy’s bright young climber?
Aru’s first year as a Grand Tour winner was 2016. He’d ended the previous season by winning the Vuelta after seeing off the surprise threat of Tom Dumoulin. He’d also ended the Giro strongly taking two stage wins ahead of Alberto Contador and topping his Grand Tour tally up to five; all summit finishes.
He plodded into 2016 in Astana colours, switching calendars with (not quite) best mate Vincenzo Nibali and eyeing up Tour de France glory. In typical Aru fashion, he looked sluggish in the early season. He fought hard at the Tour and moved up to sixth place on Stage 19. Sadly he exploded on the final day in the mountains and hasn’t been the same since. Cracking in such fashion has become common for Aru.
In his final year at Astana he would target the Tour yet again. He took the National title – paying homage to his late teammate Michele Scarponi – and grabbed a brilliant stage win in the opening week. He was part of the hopeful group that rocked Chris Froome into Peyragudes and seemed to be inside the Brit’s head during the second week. Froome was definitely taking a feisty Aru seriously but media doubts were proved correct. Aru wore yellow for two days but was reported ill in the Alps – or maybe just tired – and crumbled to fifth.
Whilst Aru’s results provide evidence of a very competitive bike rider, the way he’s been racing recently leaves a lot to be desired. Now at UAE, Aru is very rarely on the front of any group. His team provide little support in the high mountains and he’s began to resemble South African teammate – and specialist group hanger – Louis Meintjes. Aru grinds his way into top tens by limiting his losses. He grimaces as he’s dropped before pecking his way up the road, always just out of camera shot.
In 2015 Aru was one of the finest pure climbers in the peloton. He’d attack and very few would be able to follow. Presently he lacks that kick and without it his threat is decidedly blunt. Nevertheless, on the Vuelta’s first rest day he sits in 11th place behind plenty of riders with something to prove.
At the head of the race we have Yates, who lost over an hour in the final two days of the Giro d’Italia despite being spoken of as the best climber in the race. Below is the evergreen Alejandro Valverde and frequent underachiever Nairo Quintana. A lot that is said about Aru also applies to Quintana who has often missed the mark during his time as Colombia’s leading GC rider. Fourth is Germany’s Emanuel Buchmann – a huge talent in a brand new situation. Can he survive the three weeks?
Next up is Ion Izagirre who raced the Tour as a support rider for Nibali and has never been considered a Grand Tour specialist. Tony Gallopin is sixth following a superb stage win to Pozo Alcón. Sadly, the Frenchman won’t finish in the top ten.
We move on to a pair of dangerous Colombians. Miguel Angel Lopez looks primed to win his first Grand Tour but will surely be feeling the pressure to perform. Rigoberto Uran has plenty to prove and looks far too relaxed about it. He won’t go on the offensive.
Finally there’s the LottoNL-Jumbo pair. Steven Kruijswijk is magnificent going uphill but may yet tire and work for George Bennett. The New Zealander is everybody’s new favourite climber and has plenty of talent to go along with his swelling fan base. But what’s he ever done to scare our Fabio? The two are the same age and Bennett has never troubled the Grand Tour podium. By contrast, Aru has bidons full of experience when it comes to the podium fight.
If these ten riders falter then maybe, just maybe, the Vuelta is Aru’s to lose!
If you’re reading this after Aru has lost twenty minutes assume everything written was in jest. However, if Aru wins the 2018 Vuelta in style; consider it a prediction.