MONTECAMPIONE, Italy (VN) — Forget the hype surrounding Moreno Moser (Cannondale) or Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida).
Giuseppe Martinelli, the veteran Italian sport director who’s delivered pink jerseys from Marco Pantani to Vincenzo Nibali, says there is only one young Italian contender who could one day win the Giro d’Italia.
That rider is 23-year-old Fabio Aru (Astana), who bolted clear up Plan di Montecampione to snag an impressive victory Sunday on the same mountain where Pantani won a stage in 1998.
“It’s a strong emotion to win this stage, ahead of such quality riders,” Aru said. “When I was alone, in the last kilometer, it gave me chills. I almost couldn’t believe it.”
The emphatic stage victory is Aru’s first as a professional, but he’s already being hyped as a future Giro winner.
Martinelli told VeloNews that the 5-foot-10, 135-pounder from Sardinia is a rider who could be Italy’s next big thing.
“Aru really impresses. He has a great natural motor,” Martinelli told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “Of all the young riders I see coming up in Italy, he is the one I believe could win a Giro.”
Aru is among a promising new crop of Italian riders becoming a force in the peloton behind Nibali, Italy’s lone, proven Tour de France contender. Others coming up include Moser, Ulissi, who’s already won two stages in this year’s Giro, and sprinters Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and Sacha Modolo (Lampre-Merida).
Since joining Astana in 2012, Aru was already impressive last year in his Giro debut. He rode to fourth overall at the Giro dello Trentino before discreetly riding to 42nd overall en route to helping Nibali win his second pink jersey.
So far through this Giro, Aru has been quietly consistent. When team captain Michele Scarponi faded with crashes and troubles in the first week, Aru, who started as co-captain, stepped up. He posted a solid time trial Thursday — 16th at 2:55 back — to keep hanging around the top 10.
By his own admission, Aru is not a flashy rider, at least not off the bike.
“I have self-confidence and I believe in myself, but I am not a type to make big declarations about my intentions,” Aru said. “I like to keep my feet on the ground. I know I am just beginning as a pro, and I have so much still to learn.”
His spectacular kick Sunday saw him jump into podium contention, climbing from seventh to fourth, now 2:24 out of the pink jersey, and just 34 seconds off the podium.
“I don’t think I will be winning this year’s Giro,” he said. “This is only my second Giro, and I am still learning so much. I felt good yesterday, so I thought I would try something today. To win a stage is something special.”
When he bolted clear of the GC group, race leader Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) latched on, but the Colombian soon realized he couldn’t keep the pace.
With Nairo Quintana (Movistar) also continuing to chip away, Urán now realizes he will have to keep one eye on Aru, who is now a legitimate threat going into the Giro’s final week.
“Last year, Aru surprised me because he was so strong for such a young rider,” Urán said. “Today he demonstrated something great. When he attacked, he went very strong. I think he has a big future.”
Aru hails from San Gavino Monreale, a small town of 10,000 on the west coast of Sardinia. After playing soccer and tennis, he started to race mountain bikes and cyclocross more seriously when he was 15, relatively late by Italian standards.
After studying all week, he would fly on Saturdays to live with a family in Bologna on the Italian peninsula and compete in weekend races, flying back home on Sunday night.
“This family in Bologna helped my family pay for the plane tickets. I would race Sunday, then fly home that night to return to my studies,” he said. “It wasn’t until I started to race U23 that I even dreamed of becoming a professional.”
Aru described riding with Astana as “cycling school,” and said he’s like a sponge soaking up knowledge from his experienced teammates and staffers.
“Riding alongside riders like Scarponi and Nibali is an honor. I learn so much from them,” he said. “Paolo Tiralongo is almost like a second father to me. We live close to one another, and he is always by my side, showing me little things every day.”
When asked about the building hype and expectations, which will only sharpen following his dramatic solo victory atop the climb that was deemed “Cima Pantani” by race organizers, Aru just shrugged his skinny shoulders.
“This victory doesn’t change anything,” he said. “I started thinking about this Giro in November, and I know that I will have to keep working in the months and years to come. I want to keep improving. I don’t know how far I can go.”
If Aru keeps lighting up the climbs in the Giro’s final week, that pink jersey Martinelli believes lies in Aru’s future could come a lot sooner than expected.