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Aru still dreaming of return to previous heights

The Italian star hopes that his troubles are finally behind him following an up-and-down 2019 that included surgery and promising hints of his former glory.

Fabio Aru hopes the worst is behind him. After a few challenging seasons that saw the UAE-Team Emirates star battle through a litany of health problems and setbacks, Aru enters the 2020 season with quiet optimism.

Can he return to the top level that hinted at greatness earlier in his career? Aru has never given up trying.

“I’ve done a lot of tests, and right now, everything is OK,” Aru said at a recent team camp. “I want to forget last year.”

Aru blasted to success early in his career, with a second-place podium at the 2015 Giro d’Italia and overall victory at the Vuelta a España later that year. He backed up the hype with a spell in yellow and fifth overall at the 2017 Tour de France in just his second crack at the French grand tour.

Aru hit a high early in his career with overall victory at the Vuelta. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Since then, it’s been a laundry list of crashes, setbacks, and challenges. In 2019, doctors finally diagnosed blockages of blood flow to his left leg with iliac artery endofibrosis, and he underwent minor surgery to implant a stint. That went so well Aru made an earlier-than-expected return to racing at the Tour, where he rode to a promising 14th overall — not great, but not bad considering what he’d been through.

And just when it appeared he had turned the corner, Aru crashed during the Vuelta a España and then came down with a viral infection. That put an early end to his season, and revived doubts about the future.

“Last year is last year, and I want to look forward,” he said. “I did a nice Tour, not super, but a good performance. At the Vuelta, I could feel it in my body and I had to stop my season early. After the surgery and the effort of the Tour, my body was not ready for this [Vuelta] effort. I want to forget last season.”

Hope springs eternal in cycling, especially when a rider is at the end of a contract. For 2020, Aru simply wants to have a consistent season, stay healthy, and prove to the peloton he’s still a factor. No talk of grandeur, no unrealistic pressure.

For this year, Aru has confirmed he will not race the Giro, but instead target the Tour. Newcomers Davide Formolo and Joe Dombrowski are expected to get their chances at the Italian grand tour, while teammate Tadej Pogacar, now 21, is expected to get tapped for what will be a highly-anticipated Tour debut.

Aru simply hopes to get his groove back, debuting at the Tour of Colombia with early-season targets at Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Romandie before the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour. Along the way, he hopes to punch himself a ticket to the 2020 Olympic Games as part of the powerful Italian team for Tokyo.

“I’d like to race the Olympics,” he said. “If I am strong, I believe I can help the team on a course that’s good for me.”

At 29, Aru knows he’s at a crossroads. He is no longer the young kid on the block. In fact, Pogacar, who hit third at the Vuelta with three stage wins at 20 in his grand tour debut, is among a leading light of a new generation. In many ways, he’s like Aru was a half-decade or so ago.

Aru faces competition from within his own team, with young talent Pogacar (yellow jersey) capable of fighting for GC placings. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Despite challenges from all sides, Aru holds out faith that the best is yet to come. In some ways, Aru sees himself as a before and after, with the diagnosis and treatment of his leg problem as a clear demarcation.

“For sure when I was 23, I was third in the Giro. When I was younger I did really good results, as the guys are doing now. But you see Valverde, he’s 39, and he is at the top level,” Aru said. “When you have a problem like this you don’t know what is happening to your body, but we found out, and I started another career. We will see. I want to stay focused, but it’s not easy to speak about goals. I want to do my best and start there.”

Despite the seemingly never-ending headwinds, Aru has never given up the fight. UAE-Team Emirates is supporting him and as he enters the final year of his three-year contract for 2020, he wants to pay back the commitment.

“I have more passion now,” he said. “I love what I do and I give 100 percent every day. For sure I don’t like it when the races don’t go well. That is cycling, that is sport. I keep working.”

Perhaps being so close to ending his career too early has left Aru with a renewed respect for what he has, and what he could still achieve.

— Nicolas van Looy contributed to this report