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Behind Fabio Aru, the sun begins to plunge into the sea, the sky that special color between red and yellow that lightens the Mediterranean winter.
The scene is Calpe, a paradise for elderly tourists situated on the eastern coast of Spain.
The Peñón d’Ifach is probably the best-known image of Calpe — a white, calcareous rock 332 meters high that arises from the depths of the sea and launches itself into the sky.
Several dozen pensioners, mostly Belgians, enjoy their evening beer watching the spectacle of the sunset from a hotel balcony. Between all these white-haired heads is the slight figure of a young man with black curly hair.
It seems Aru is enjoying the spectacle mother nature is providing. Or, perhaps, he’s looking out on the Mediterranean, his mind is wandering to his native Sardinia, the large island in the sea.
On closer examination, his eyes are fixed on the street, one floor below, where a fleet of blue Astana vehicles are parked, and several mechanics are busy cleaning and tuning up bikes. Not long before, Aru and his teammates were riding these bikes, as part of a January training camp. In the morning, they will be again.
His gaze is broken, and he readies himself for an interview. A wide, sincere smile appears on his face. Large, shiny teeth give him away — it’s Fabio Aru, winner of the Vuelta a España, runner-up at the Giro d’Italia, and the great promise of Italian cycling.
CyclingTips: After your Vuelta victory last year, it’s logical to think that 2016 will be a very important season as you make the big step to lead Astana at the Tour de France.
Fabio Aru: Yes, we have effectively designed a different calendar compared to what I’ve done in other years, and that is something that motivates me. I am very happy because, in terms of concentration, December was much better [than in 2014, when Astana’s 2015 WorldTour license was in jeopardy].
Despite having several press events, sponsor obligations, and presentations, I was able to keep my workouts always as the top priority. Yes, I can say I’ve had a good winter. Also, I was able to go to Brazil to recon the route of the Olympic Games, which is one of the most important goals for this year.
CT: Tell us about the Rio de Janeiro circuit — is it as hard as everyone says?
FA: It’s incredible! It is the equivalent of a big stage of any major tour. It will be a very long race, with many climbs. It will be very hard. In addition, the circuit where we will start the race, which is the same as where the time trial will take place, has a very rough asphalt. Actually, it is a circuit I like very much.
CT: How has your daily life changed much winning the Vuelta?
FA: Only a few days ago, I entered a bar here in Spain and the owner recognized me. He congratulated me on my victory in the Vuelta. That had not happened to me before, and those are things that make you very excited.
CT: This year you are going to lead Astana, which always aspires to win the Tour de France. Are you doing any specific or different mental preparation compared to other years?
FA: Not really. I kept my routine the same, as it has worked out well for many years. As always, I’ve tried to stay as fit as possible, in order not to start from scratch, but I’m always willing to try things that will help me improve. And I speak here of both training methods and things such as food, and diet, because those are the typical details that will make a difference on the big days.
CT: Have you tried to improve your performance in the time trial?
FA: Yes, I made a specific effort much greater than other years working on this, and I must say I am very happy with the results of that it. It was one of the objectives of the winter and I think we succeeded.
CT: What’s your schedule leading up to the Tour de France?
FA: I begin in Valencia and will continue with Algarve, Paris-Nice, Tour of the Basque Country, Fléche Wallonné, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Criterium du Dauphiné.
CT: It’s a completely different calendar to last year. Are we going to see you compete for the win in some of those races?
FA: They’re all races where I can do well, except maybe Paris-Nice. I don’t think it suits my characteristics so well. I really want to go to the Basque Country because it’s a race I’ve never done, and I’ve always wanted to race. But of course, I would like to do well in all of them.
CT: This year your main target will be a Tour de France victory in Paris. It will be your Tour debut. Do you think that it might be too ambitious for a first-timer?
FA: I keep my feet on the ground. Of course, I don’t know what the Tour de France is like, because I have never raced there. All the big names of cycling will be there and they will leave Manche with one thought — victory. I have to be able to do my best. I cannot tell you now how this should be done. I’ll have to go step by step, stage by stage.
CT: You said you’ll be at the Tour and the Olympics. Is it conceivable that we will see you wearing bib No.1 at the Vuelta?
FA: Even without the Olympics, racing the Tour and Vuelta would make for a very busy schedule, so I see that as being very difficult.
CT: Plan A for Astana is to go with you at the Tour de France, and with Vincenzo Nibali at the Giro d’Italia, but Nibali has said he wants to go to the Tour to prepare well for the Olympics. How do you feel about that?
FA: For me that’s not a problem. For Italy it is very important to have two Italians with real chances in Rio de Janeiro, and if that means that Vincenzo has to do the Tour, I’m more than happy with it.
CT: And how is your personal relationship with Nibali?
FA: I admire him, and I have the good fortune to have him by my side to receive good advice from a rider like him.
CT: You are just 25 years and you are already considered one of the most important riders of a country with a huge history in cycling. Do you think that can be a heavy burden?
FA: When I left Sardinia, I did it to become a professional cyclist, but never, not in my wildest dreams, did I think I would return to the island and see pictures of myself hanging on every wall. I consider myself a calm person, so I do not think that pressure will get to me. I think that living this sort of thing is an enormous fortune.
CT: The biggest difference between the Astana teams of 2015 and 2016 is the absence of Mikel Landa, who left to ride with Team Sky. Do you think that the 2015 team had too many leaders?
FA: The loss of Mikel will be felt, because he was very important in this team. Logically, given his age, I have to respect his decision to switch teams. It is normal for him to play his cards, and he has understood that he must do so outside of Astana. But I will say that for everything he did last year, I am extremely grateful.
CT: But Landa was the protagonist of one of the great controversies of the year when he disobeyed the team orders in Andorra, at the Vuelta. At any time of that stage did you come to believe that his attack was going to cause you to lose the race?
FA: Not for a single fraction of a second!
CT: So, after all what was said, there was no problem whatsoever with his attack?
FA: Yes, because that is the truth. He had escaped and it was not fair that he should have to stop, or that I would ask him to do so. I never thought I could lose the Vuelta by what he did there, because the difference, if we had done differently, would have been three or four seconds.
CT: Do you like the course of this year’s Tour de France?
FA: Very much. The route in general, and the mountain time trial in particular.
CT: If your experience in the Tour de France is positive this year, and you are able to finish, say, in the top five, should we expect that in the future the Tour will be your main objective?
FA: For the moment, let me concentrate on what I have ahead this year. Then we’ll think of other things. Step by step, please.
Video: Fabio Aru wins stage 11 of the 2015 Vuelta a España