Fabio Aru: A Spanish Swan song
As retirement from professional cycling beckons, Fabio Aru discusses his affinity with the Vuelta a España, his most challenging moments and his spell with Team Qhubeka-NextHash.
Just two days before the 2021 Vuelta a España kicked-off in Burgos, Qhubeka-NextHash announced that the loop around Spain would be Fabio Aru’s final race as a professional cyclist. We had the pleasure of speaking to the 31-year-old on the first rest day.
Aru was never supposed to conquer the biggest races in the world. Growing up in Sardinia, his family had no direct link to the sport at a professional level, though his father regularly enjoyed casual rides on his mountain bike. Aru’s achievements are built upon dedication to his craft, and a deep passion for riding his bike.
After beginning his professional career with Astana in the autumn of 2012, Aru rapidly became a prominent figure in the WorldTour peloton. He started the Giro d’Italia for the first time in 2013, and by the time the 2014 Giro came around, he’d become a stage winner. He only needed one more season to become a Grand Tour champion.
Aru won the 2015 Vuelta a España ahead of Joaquim Rodríguez and Rafal Majka after Tom Dumoulin faded in the mountains late on. He had just turned 25, but Aru had already won a Grand Tour, which only added to the five stage victories he'd also collected.
“When I won the race it was a really good experience, good memories", recalls Fabio, looking back to his victory in 2015. "I also remember my first Vuelta, where I discovered this beautiful country. The fans really love cycling. For sure, when I won the Vuelta it was amazing, but I think that every time I've raced in Spain it was really good."
Fabio Aru attacks to victory on La Planche des Belles Filles at the 2017 Tour de France (Image credit: KT/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)
After winning a stage at the 2017 Tour de France atop La Planche des Belles Filles, which completed the Grand Tour trilogy (winning a stage at all three Grand Tours), Fabio encountered the most difficult spell of his career. His results declined rapidly, and for no apparent reason. Fabio and his team were puzzled. After a year of frustration, Fabio was eventually diagnosed with an iliac artery issue.
“I have really bad memories about this”, said Fabio, glancing back to this phase of his career. “I didn’t understand the real problem for one year. That was really bad, because my races and my shape went down. I tried to have a fast recovery, which was not the best. When you have surgery like this, you need to give time to your body for recovery. I was immediately at the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France, which was not the best for my career. I think I lost two years, easily.”
After a difficult three-year spell with UAE Team Emirates came to a close in 2020, Aru joined Team Qhubeka NextHash for the 2021 campaign — the third team of his career. Qhubeka ride with the spirit of Ubuntu — 'I am because we are' — which is about working together as a team to achieve goals. Qhubeka, which is a Nguni word meaning "to move forward", empower people across Africa by donating bicycles to those who can benefit most.
Aru finished second overall at the 2021 Vuelta a Burgos (Image credit: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Aru has felt the spirit of Ubuntu this season, and spoke powerfully about his time with Team Qhubeka-NextHash. “We race like a team. Outside of races, we live like a family. I always think that if I had found this team before in my career, for sure, it would have been a little better for me, but I only found it in my last year. I am also lucky to be part of this team and to end my chapter of cycling in a team that I really love.”
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Six years after he won the race, the 2021 Vuelta a España will be Fabio Aru’s swan song. Exiting the first rest day, the Italian sits 14th overall, four minutes and 36 seconds behind race leader Primož Roglič. But what are Aru’s goals for the final race of his professional career?
“I am still close to the top ten riders in the GC, although I lost some time on stage 9. It can happen in Grand Tours, you can have one bad day. I’m still close to the top ten. Also, to be in the front of one stage would be really good for me. For the moment, I want to know how my legs are in the next days. In Grand Tours, a lot can change from one week to another.”
Richard Carapaz and Fabio Aru during stage 7 of the Vuelta a España (Image credit: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Reflecting on his career as a whole, Fabio said, “I started riding my bike because I loved to ride. And then, you know, I become one of the best pro riders in the world. I started with a BMX in Sardinia! To come from nothing to the top level of the sport, it’s amazing.”
For Fabio, this is the end of a chapter, but the beginning of a new one beckons. “For sure I want to continue to ride as a hobby and a passion. Maybe I'll do some things in the cycling world. But first I want to stay with my family and give my time for my family. You never know, one moment you think one way, but first I know that my family has the priority in this moment.”
The boy from Sardinia conquered the world of cycling. He won a stage at all three Grand Tours, and became a champion. He faced adversity for long periods and came through the other side. For that, we should take stock, and celebrate watching Fabio Aru for what remains of the 2021 Vuelta a España. The peloton won't feel quite the same without him.
Cover image: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images