Blazin' Saddles: Aru kidding? Giro 100 hits snag after Fabio bombshell
The withdrawal of Fabio Aru from the centenary Giro d'Italia will leave a huge gap when the fight for pink kicks off in his native Sardinia on May 5.
Can you imagine the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations without the presence of Her Majesty? Such a regal dilemma is what the Giro d'Italia organisers RCS woke up to this week when 'Knight of the Four Moors' Fabio Aru – the peloton's only high-profile Sardinian rider – pulled out of the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia less than a month away from the race's Grande Partenza.
Aru – the mouthy Astana all-rounder who finished third in the 2014 Giro before going one better in 2015, the same year he won the Vuelta – picked up a nasty knee injury after crashing on a descent while training at altitude in Tenerife at the start of the month. The 26-year-old hit the deck at high speed after a blowout to one of his inner tubes.
In a subsequent picture Aru shared on Twitter, his left knee looked more swollen than the banks of a flooded river.
Although he suffered no fractures, Aru was diagnosed with pre-patellar bursitis – commonly known as Housemaid's Knee. And it was later revealed by his Astana team that the injury would rule him out of the Giro.
Aru had previously talked about the "immense pride" he would have taken in lining up at the start of the centenary edition of his home tour in his native Sardinia. But now the organisers have the prospect of kicking things off in Alghero without Aru – a bit like a Tour de France grand depart in Slovakia without the world champion Peter Sagan, or a Tour of Britain curtain-raiser on the Isle of Man without Mark Cavendish.
In fact, it's worse than those two examples – for in either scenario the likes of Peter Kennaugh (cycling's second most famous Manxman) or Juraj Sagan (Slovakia's least famous Sagan) could at least step into the mould of local champion.
Who can Astana draft in to give the local Sardinians someone to cheer for now? When your options are signing up an amateur 23-year-old club rider (Filippo Capone) or a 38-year-old journeyman who retired six years ago (Alberto Loddo), then it's not looking good. That said, Cagliari native Loddo's a good shout: the former Androni, Tinkoff and Lampre missed out when the Giro last visited Sardinia in 2007, so the hunger should be there.
What's more, Loddo's only eight months older than the man Astana have now pinned their hopes on: Michele Scarponi.
Yes, in their hour of need, Astana have called on Scarpo to step up to the plate – even though he heralds from a small town near Ancona on the east coast of mainland Italy. Last year the Italian veteran almost singlehandedly turned the Giro around for former Astana star Vincenzo Nibali – and now the default 2011 Giro champion (he 'won' after Alberto Contador was popped for clenbuterol despite himself being sanctioned for his involvement with Dr. Michele Ferrari that same year) will get another unexpected chance to lead the charge for the boys in baby blue.
Well, if fellow 37-year-old and Puerto veteran Alejandro Valverde can pile up the wins for Movistar this year, then why can't equally evergreen Scarponi do the same for Astana? After all, it seems like he's already got some celebration ideas for the podium…
Perhaps Astana should even go one step further and name Scarponi's famous training partner, Frankje the macaw, in their nine-bird/man squad? Just dip Frankje's tail in oil and they wouldn't even need to issue him with any team kit.
But seriously, this episode begs the question of whether Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov was too hasty at showing Nibali the back door last winter. For without Nibali, and now Aru, Astana are not so much all fur coat and no knickers as neither coat nor knickers. And try as he might, an embraced Scarponi won't be able to hold up the team's trousers in the face of a rampant Nairo Quintana next month.
Incidentally, Nibali, who now puts in the occasional training ride for Bahrain Merida, had some words of encouragement for his former team-mate after the news broke of Aru's withdrawal. The misleading narrative is that both Italians are about as close to one another as Popeye and Pluto although the actual truth is rather more prosaic: for all their differences, Nibali and Aru are quite good friends.
Fabio Aru and Vincenzo NibaliImago
In a letter to Aru published in Wednesday's Gazzetta dello Sport, Nibali called on his compatriot to channel his accustomed "strength and determination" and not give up hope of at least starting the centenary edition of the Giro.
"Fabio, don't lose hope. Not yet. Even if it's very difficult and perhaps even impossible, I think there's still a chance to see you at the start of the Giro d'Italia on May 5 in Alghero. You and I are the two big Italian riders for Grand Tours and everyone will miss out if you can't be in Sardinia," Nibali wrote.
The defending Giro champion, whose native Sicily is visited for two stages after the opening three stages in Sardinia, said he was "sorry about what happened" but urged Aru to resist making a final decision until he has seen out the 10 days of rest prescribed by his doctor.
" I think like a rider and so I know what it's like to dedicate months preparing for a goal as special as a Giro that starts near your home, especially for us, who come from the islands, and so don't often get to race near our homes. If everything had gone well, you would have definitely been a contender for the pink jersey."
By his reckoning, Aru (who in a statement spoke of his "great regret" and "disappointment" not to race the Giro) should still do his best to start the race – if not to be an overall contender then to put in an appearance in front of his home fans and use the race as training for the Tour de France.
"I'm not a doctor but sometimes we're able to recover faster than people expect. Maybe things will be better in a few days' time? Fabio, don't give up hope, even if everything seems lost. Miracles do happen and I really hope to see you at the start of the Giro 100.
Of course, Nibali and Aru – who had been expected to form a cross-team alliance in a bid to deny Movistar's Quintana a second Giro title – are not the only ones distraught about the news. After all, the whole 100th edition was billed to be a battle between the two home riders with the opening five stages of the race taking place on their islands of birth.
Indeed, this humble blogger wrote an entire magazine column about the showdown between the rivals-cum-friends in a May edition which went to press just hours before Aru made his bombshell of an announcement. The perils of long lead times, eh?