Giro d'Italia
Italian Fabio Aru (Astana) saluted the crowd at...

Can Aru go the distance? Expectations growing for Italy’s next big thing

The weight of a nation rests on Fabio Aru's shoulders as the young Italian rides, for the first time, as Astana's GC leader in the Giro

SANREMO, Italy (VN) — If you believe La Gazzetta dello Sport, Fabio Aru is the best Italian cyclist since Fausto Coppi. Of course, they say that about every GC hopeful who comes down the pipe, from Marco Pantani to Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). But there is no doubting that this year’s Giro d’Italia marks a coming of age for the 24-year-old from Sardinia.

With Nibali bypassing the Giro to focus on the Tour de France, Astana’s Aru is the man in the middle of the Giro media machine.

For the first time of his young career, he will start with an entire squad at his beck and call, and he will be starting the race to win. Last year, Aru confirmed his potential as a grand-tour rider, with a stage victory and third overall in Milano. He backed that up with two more stage wins and fifth overall at the Vuelta a España.

Can he go the distance? That is the big question ahead of this Giro, which will be very important in Aru’s development as the rider who is poised to join Nibali at the top of the Italian peloton.

“I’ve been working since November to get ready for this Giro. I come here with not so many racing days in my legs, but I’ve been working very hard, and I hope to make a big impact on the race,” Nibali said Saturday.

“My rivals are more experienced than me, but I hope to get through the first week and the first time trial, and then we’ll see what happens in the final week.”

Astana team boss Giuseppe Martinelli already tipped Aru two years ago as a future Giro winner.

“Aru really impresses. He has a big motor. Of all the young riders coming up in Italy, he’s the one I believe could win a Giro,” Martinelli said. When pressed if Aru is ready to win the Giro, Martinelli wouldn’t give too much away: “Patience.”

Despite his rising stock in his native Italy, Aru did not start the Giro on Saturday as a five-star favorite. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) carries that designation, as well as the pressure that comes with it. The 32-year-old Spaniard stands heads and shoulders above the rest of the Giro field in terms of experience. Of the major, pre-race favorites, he’s the only one who has won a grand tour.

Right behind him are Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step), second in the Giro two consecutive years, and Richie Porte (Sky), who has been on a tear this spring. But neither has won a grand tour.

In fact, Contador said that the rider he fears most in the mountains is Aru. At last year’s Giro and Vuelta, Aru revealed an explosive kick that reminds many of Contador during his best years. If Aru can make it deep into the third week with his GC chances still intact, Contador won’t want to let his young Italian rival ride away.

An illness before the Giro del Trentino in April put a kink in Aru’s approach to the Giro. In fact, he started the Giro with only 15 days of racing in his legs. Contador, too, has relatively light racing days in his legs, by design, as he targets the Giro-Tour double. But for a younger rider like Aru, spinning the pedals at race speed is critically important before his fourth career grand tour.

“I wanted to race [Giro del] Trentino, but I got sick. That’s part of cycling, and although it wasn’t ideal, I went to altitude to prepare as best as I could,” Aru said. “With the work I’ve done, I believe I am ready for this Giro.”

With riders such as Ivan Basso (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Damiano Cunego (Nippo-Vini Fantini) set to ride into the sunset, Nibali has emerged as the pre-eminent Italian rider, becoming the first Italian since Pantani in 1998 to win the Tour. Nipping at his heels is Aru, who will likely return to the Vuelta in September, with an eye on making a Tour debut in 2016.

Astana wants to keep Aru in its turquoise jersey, and this week announced a contract extension through 2017.

Aru hails from San Gavino Monreale, a town of 10,000 on the west coast of Sardinia. He started to race mountain bikes and cyclocross when he was 15 years old, relatively late by Italian standards. After studying all week, he would fly on Saturdays to stay with a family in Bologna on the Italian peninsula and compete in weekend races, flying back home on Sunday night.

After finishing second in the 2012 Baby Giro behind Joe Dombrowski, who was racing for the U.S. national team, he quickly made a mark in the pro ranks. He rode in support of Nibali in the 2013 Giro in his grand-tour debut, and then Aru rode throughout last season intent on finding his place in the peloton.

One worry for Aru’s chances in this year’s Giro is the 59.4km time trial waiting in stage 14. Of the top favorites, many are expecting Aru to lose the most time on the rolling power course.

“I want to become a complete rider. I’ve been working hard on time trialing,” he said. “I know I need to improve there to seriously hope to win a grand tour someday. I’ve worked with Specialized and have hit the wind tunnel. I have been working on time trialing, we’ll see how things go. I know how important it will be in the future.”

On Saturday, he was sitting in the “hot seat” as the virtual maglia rosa as Astana set a blistering time that only Orica-GreenEdge could beat. For Aru, starting off on the right foot is just what he needed coming into this Giro of expectation.

“I am very happy about the result today. We have a very strong group here today, a mix of young riders and some experienced,” Aru said. “We are very united, and ready for this Giro. I am excited about what will happen over the next three weeks.”

So are the editors at La Gazzetta and everyone else at newspapers across Italy.