It is of huge significance for a team just starting its second year of professional competition that UAE Team Emirates managed to acquire the services of Fabio Aru for 2018.
The 27-year-old Italian is one of the most talented professionals in the peloton – having won the Vuelta a Espana in 2015, the same year he claimed the white jersey for best young rider at the Giro d’Italia in his homeland, finishing second overall.
That came 12 months after he claimed a maiden Grand Tour podium place – third – at the same race. His Stage 5 triumph at the Tour de France last year completed a clean sweep of stage victories at Grand Tours – the three races are referred to as cycling’s Triple Crown – of which Aru now has six in total.
Yet despite his achievement from Vittel to La Planche des Belles Filles last July, as well as becoming Italy’s road race champion in June, something didn’t feel right for the then Astana rider.
He’d been at the Kazakhstan-backed team for six years but hadn’t kicked on from his glorious 2015 – despite managing to oust compatriot Vincenzo Nibali as Astana’s jewel in the crown.
UAE Team Emirates finished a credible 12th out of 18 teams on debut in last season’s UCI WorldTour, while Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida – the other newcomers – finished 14th.
Team officials have spoken this week of harbouring lofty ambitions to finish inside the top seven this year and be one of cycling’s leading teams by 2020. And that is the sort of ambition which attracted Aru.
“The project here at UAE Team Emirates matches my ambitions and my view of cycling, the motivations I have are huge,” said the Sardinian.
“It was the right moment for this move. I know the team has a lot of ambition.
“I feel I made a good decision joining. I thought a lot before making this decision and I’m convinced my choice is the best for helping achieve my future goals.
“I spent six years at Astana and I decided I needed to start a new chapter of my cycling career. I thank all the people who worked with me, they all were great and important for helping develop my cycling.”
Aru will saddle up for his UAE Team Emirates debut at the Abu Dhabi Tour, starting on Wednesday. And even though he admits the Giro is “special” for any Italian cyclist, he has designs on all three Grand Tour races, although perhaps not all this season.
“Together with the team’s technical staff and management, also taking into account the goals of the team’s sponsors, we’re studying the courses of the Grand Tours and we’ll wait for the Vuelta a Espana route to be announced,” he said of his aims for 2018.
“Then we’ll choose the programme which could fulfill our goals and ambitions. The Giro d’Italia is something special for an Italian rider, however in France (last year), I felt how prestigious the Tour de France is as a world sports event.
“We are not in hurry for making a definitive choice. I can’t wait to start the new season. I believe I can win some of these big Tours. I hope to be able to do that. I believe the team is a good team and well structured.”
There were some stellar moments for UAE Team Emirates on their professional bow last season. Portugal’s Rui Costa rode to an impressive win on home soil at the Abu Dhabi Tour 12 months ago.
South African Louis Meintjes – who has since moved to Mark Cavendish’s Team Dimension Data – recorded a second successive eighth-place finish at Le Tour.
Slovenia’s Matej Mohoric, who’s joined Nibali in Bahrain, claimed victory on the Vuelta’s Stage 7.
And with Aru’s arrival, promise of further success has also been ushered in, with the arrival of reigning European champion Alexander Kristoff as well as Dan Martin, who has Le Tour and Vuelta stage victories.
And, having witnessed the team’s first steps last year, Aru was encouraged by what he saw.
“The quality of our roster, which was already good in the 2017, has improved even more,” said Aru, who beat Diego Ulissi – now a UAE team-mate – to his first national road race title in Ivrea, near Turin last season.
“This means that we can aim to be protagonist in the main races this season. But first of all, it will be important to have the right attitude for trying to race and trying to give enthusiasm to the fans.
“Looking at the first year of UAE Team Emirates, I can say I immediately perceived the team project was very good, well managed and that the team had a very positive image.”
But he played down suggestions that his nationality will be of benefit to him settling in his new environment.
UAE Team Emirates were born out of the ashes of Lampre-Merida, who had well-established roots in pro cycling going back to the early 1990s. Almost all the staff are Italian as are 12 of the team’s 26 riders.
“There was a large group of Italian riders and staff members at Astana too, so this won’t be a big change for me,” he added.
“I like to work with everybody, the nationally is not a key element, it’s important that everybody works with passion and try to achieve the top goals together as a team.”
Aru finished behind Costa – another man he now calls a team-mate – in Abu Dhabi last year. He was sixth, 48 seconds adrift of the Portuguese, on the grueling ascent of Jebel Hafeet.
The win saw the 2013 world champion leap Cavendish atop the standings and Costa clung to first place in the GC on the final Stage 4 at Yas Marina Circuit as Aru settled for seventh overall.
But he denied that memory and a general lack of competition at Astana last year has led to him now lining up alongside Costa.
He said: “No, I don’t think so. In Abu Dhabi last year, Rui proved to be the strongest, we must congratulate him for that victory. It’s great thinking that we’ll be in the same team in 2018.”
And he admits this weekend’s race takes on special significance for him as a new member of the Emirates’ backed team.
“It’s the race of the sponsor and the home race for the team,” Aru said, pointing to Abu Dhabi as the key race early on in his 2018 plans.
“The Abu Dhabi Tour will be my debut race in the 2018 season and I’ll once again try my best to win. This year I’ll have even higher motivation, given I am racing in the UAE Team Emirates colours.
“We are an awesome team. We have Alex who has just won a stage at the Tour of Oman. We have Rui who is the defending champion here, this team is strong and we’ve done really well here. We believe there will be lots of strong competitors but we believe we can have a good race.”
It is anyone’s guess as to the UAE strategy for Abu Dhabi, with big hitters Aru, Costa and Kristoff all in the side. Aru revealed there is no set strategy for who will be the man pushing for GC honours, but he insists everyone will work together.
He said: “My main goal is to get results. So depending on the strategic situation of each race, if I am helping Rui because he is in a good condition to win the race, no problem for me. We have options and we will see how the race unfolds.
“I trained really well over the off-season but it’s the first race of the season so we will see what shape I’m in and what I can do for the team. I’m really curious to find out what shape I’m in this week.”
Know more about Sport360 Application