His first season with UAE Team Emirates was a year to forget. Now, Fabio Aru needs to find the spark that won him the 2015 Vuelta.

UAE Team Emirates opened its checkbook in 2019 to sign emerging sprint star Fernando Gaviria, yet the team is still banking on Fabio Aru to deliver.

Aru was UAE’s biggest signing for this season in what was one of the blockbuster transfers of 2018. Things didn’t pan out as hoped for when Aru was winless in his first season of a three-year deal with the team.

Even with the arrival of Gaviria and the expectations of building a full lead-out train around the fast Colombian, team brass is still hoping Aru will pay dividends in 2019 with a return to form.

“We have full confidence in Fabio,” said UAE Team Emirates sport director Joxean Fernández. “We are supporting him and we believe in him as a person and as a cyclist.”

The 28-year-old Aru left Astana after six seasons with the Kazakh-backed outfit in a high-profile three-year deal to lead UAE in the grand tours.

To say things didn’t go as planned is an understatement. Aru was a shadow of his former self during the Giro d’Italia when he struggled to stay with the fastest attacks in the mountains. Aru eventually abandoned. Things didn’t go much better at the Vuelta, which he won in dramatic fashion in 2015, but at least he managed to reach Madrid and put a full grand tour in his legs.

Fabio Aru
Aru abandoned the 2018 Giro on stage 19. Photo: Dan Cavallari | VeloNews.com

The team is optimistic Aru will be back to his level as a consistent grand tour podium contender in 2019.

“Fabio didn’t have a great year,” Fernández admitted during a phone interview. “He didn’t have one major problem, but it was an accumulation of small things. A crash here, a muscular problem there. There were a lot of small things that prevented him from having a great year.”

One middle-of-the-road season isn’t going to derail Aru’s career. A knee injury kept him out of the 2017 Giro, but that doesn’t appear to be what caused his difficulties this season.

Aru, after all, won the 2015 Vuelta and wore the yellow jersey in the 2017 Tour de France. He’s won stages in all three grand tours, finished on the Giro podium twice and rode to fifth in the 2017 Tour. Aru wants to put things back on track for next year.

“Something was missing all year. I was always a step behind the strongest riders,” Aru told VeloNews’s Gregor Brown last month. “All year long, I never managed to get into my very top condition. Unfortunately, that’s sport these days, it doesn’t allow you to be at 95 percent.

“When you’re missing even a little bit, you’ll struggle to get results, especially a stage race rider of my characteristics,” Aru continued. “Certainly some errors were committed, and sometimes I probably tried to do much, to do things at all costs, and that causes you to make errors.”

Fabio Aru
In only his second attempt at the Tour de France, Aru took over the yellow jersey at the ski resort finish of Peyragudes in 2017. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

There’s no question the coming season will be decisive for Aru. He’ll be 29 this summer, the age when most riders are reaching their full maturity. Aru is in a similar situation to other riders who hit top results very early, such as Nairo Quintana or Tejay Van Garderen. It can be challenging to sustain upward momentum. All three are hoping for resets in 2019.

With other riders such as Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) emerging as grand tour winners, coupled with Sky’s continued stranglehold on the Tour de France, it’s not going to be getting any easier to elbow onto grand tour podiums.

Without revealing details, Fernández suggested there will be changes coming for 2019, including some tweaks to his calendar and preparation. On paper, the 2019 Tour looks to favor Aru more than the Giro, but Fernández said racing schedules are yet to be defined.

In addition to Gaviria, UAE Team Emirates also brings on Sergio Henao, but Fernández said Aru and Dan Martin will remain the gravitational center of the team’s GC ambitions.

“Henao is a great one-week racer and we think he can bring a lot to the team in those kinds of races,” Fernández said. “And Dan Martin is a top professional and he’s very smart. He knows what he can do, and cycling isn’t just mathematics. Dan knows how to move in the races and he showed that this year. And along with [Alejandro] Valverde, he is always one of the top candidates in the Ardennes. We will keep giving him our support.”

It will be an important season for UAE Team Emirates on several fronts. It needs to establish top support for Gaviria, who is emerging as one of the sport’s best sprinters, and then find a way to nudge Aru back to his previous level in the grand tours.