Aru ready for Tour debut as potential protagonist

MILAN, Italy (VN) — Fabio Aru’s odds to win the Tour de France went up as he soloed to victory in the Critérium du Dauphiné’s third stage Wednesday in Tournon, France. The win, his first in France, perhaps indicated what’s to come when the Sardinian debuts in France’s big tour on July 2.

Sky’s Chris Froome, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, and Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador will take top billing when the Tour starts in Normandy in three weeks. Behind them is a second tier of contenders, including Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and Astana’s 25-year-old Aru.

Working in Aru’s favor, besides the confidence earned from his daring flyer off the Côte de Secheras Wednesday, is grand tour experience. After his grand tour debut ended with a 42nd-place finish at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, in which he helped teammate Vincenzo Nibali win, he has never been out of the top five. He was third in the 2014 Giro, fifth in the 2014 Vuelta a España, second in the 2015 Giro behind Contador, and won the 2015 Vuelta.

Astana is also providing firepower. Along with Sky, the Kazakh team is the most powerful WorldTour team when it comes to grand tours, having just helped Nibali notch up his second Giro title in May. Nibali, incidentally, will support Aru in the Tour as he prepares for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“After last year’s second in the Giro and win in the Vuelta, we told [Aru] the Tour is next,” team manager Giuseppe Martinelli said. “He will have everything he needs, we will take a super strong team to support him.

“He can already win this year. OK, Contador and Froome have the experience, but Aru has nothing to lose and so much to gain in the Tour de France.”

Aru’s big grin got even wider Wednesday afternoon, when he received praise from one of his idols. “This is the type of rider cycling needs,” Contador said. “Hats off to him for his win. I don’t know if he’ll be a big rival or not, but for sure, he’s going to be a Tour protagonist.”

Contador shared the same praise when Aru, then only 24, won two stages in the 2014 Vuelta in the company of both Froome and Contador. From that moment, their bond grew. Aru’s not letting the win or Contador’s words go to his head.

“I came to the Dauphiné to get into form for the Tour, my No. 1 goal,” Aru said. “Don’t ask me if I’ll be a protagonist. It’s going to be my first Tour, so I need to keep my feet on the ground.”

Rarely has Aru rolled though the land of Champagne and foie gras. As an amateur, flights from Sardinia to mainland Italy every weekend to race were his big trips. The tours that he competed in were in Italy — the Baby Giro when he finished second behind American Joe Dombrowski in 2012 and the Giro della Valle d’Aosta, which he won twice. He never raced one of the biggest amateur races, the Tour de L’Avenir in France.

As a professional since 2012, always in Astana’s turquoise colors, he has raced three times in France. The Dauphiné this week is his third time and offered him a chance to claim his first win in the “hexagon” country. His other six wins came from stages in Giro and Vuelta, and of course, the Vuelta overall.

The lack of French racing, specifically in the Tour, could cost Aru. In 1983, Frenchman Laurent Fignon was the last rider to win the Tour in a debut appearance.

“We’re concerned about the first week, in the flat and stressful stages,” trainer Maurizio Mazzoleni said. “Those stages are different than what he has raced at the Giro or Vuelta. Afterwards, he should be fine.”

“Remember,” added Martinelli, “he’s been on the podium three times in the five grand tours he’s raced so far.”

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