Fabio Aru has become the next big thing in Italian cycling with marvelous climbing performances at the Giro and Vuelta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Velo magazine, the annual awards issue.

Che grinta!

It’s an Italian phrase for “what grit!” It’s reserved for those with guts, those like Fabio Aru. When he attacked, gritted his teeth, and grimaced as he churned up the mountains of Italy and Spain, the tifosi yelled, “Che grinta!” At both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, there was plenty of teeth-gnashing, pedal-smashing grit from the wide-mouthed Sardinian.

If you’ve been following the career of Joe Dombrowski, the talented American climber from Team Sky, you may have been familiar with Aru years before he exploded onto the scene in 2014.

That’s because it was Aru who pushed the Virginian, then racing for the U.S. national team, all the way to the top of the Passo Gavia summit finish during the 2012 GiroBio, affectionately known as the Baby Giro. Back then, Dombrowski walked away with the title.

Now, it is Aru who is climbing his way toward stardom. The whippet-thin 23-year-old made a shark-like splash in just his second Giro start, displaying gobs of panache to take a stage win atop Montecampione, on his way to third place overall. That performance, as well as his blistering uphill time trial which saw him finish just 17 seconds behind eventual overall winner Nairo Quintana, electrified the Italian fans like no other rider since the emergence of Vincenzo Nibali — now his teammate — a half decade ago.

“He reminds me of Pantani,” said Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli, who was Pantani’s right-hand man. “Aru has class that I have not seen in a long time. Of all the young Italians, he’s the one I believe can win the Giro some day.”

Aru’s name was not on anyone’s lips before the Giro started in Belfast. Other Italians, such as Moreno Moser (Cannondale) or Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), might have been receiving the pre-race hype, but by the finish, it was Aru’s name that was on everyone’s tongue.

His name was being shouted again in August, when he confirmed his grand-tour capabilities at the Vuelta a España. Though he couldn’t quite grab a podium spot, finishing fifth, he snagged two stage wins in front of arguably the deepest GC field of the year. Both came atop summit finishes, as he rode away from the likes of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome.

Thus far, grinta has taken Aru to high places. What will the future hold, however, on a team led by the reigning Italian national champion and favorite son, Nibali? Of course, his major focus is to defend his Tour title, but he hasn’t ruled out racing the Giro alongside Aru.

“I would really like that a lot and to ride it as a protagonist,” Nibali said of the prospect of riding his home grand tour. “I would come to win it, and then afterward I’d think about the Tour. It would be a choice made with the heart. But as you know, there’s Fabio Aru in the team, too. He wants space and the team believes a lot in him.”

The Tour de France winner insisted that he wouldn’t mind sharing team leadership with the younger Italian or even riding in his support. Aru’s grinta should come in handy as the dynamics of his team continue to evolve.