At the start of the Piani di Tavagnasco — a 9km climb with over 1,000 metres of vertical ascent on the border between Piedmont and Valle D'Aosta — Fabio Aru attacked the peloton. He got on his pedals on the first 20% ramps, set a hellish pace, and opened a gap. After that, nobody was able to catch him again.
That morning, the Palazzago's rider was fourth in the general classification, 1 minute 44 seconds behind the yellow jersey of Andrea Manfredi (who died in 2018 following a plane crash in Indonesia). To get back into the general classification, Aru had no alternative. He had to attack head-on.
"It's one of the hardest climbs I've done," Aru recalls. "I remember it well because I took it from underneath at full speed, I arrived alone, and it was beautiful."
One of Aru's first races as a professional. It was August 25th 2012 at the USA Pro Challenge in Boulder, Colorado. Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
It was 21st July 2012. It was the Giro della Valle d'Aosta, a tough race for amateurs in which the greatest talents of history took part: Pavel Sivakov, Enric Mas, Mark Padun, Laurens De Plus, Davide Formolo, Fausto Masnada, Joe Dombrowski, Thibaut Pinot, Domenico Pozzovivo, Damiano Cunego, Gilberto Simoni, Ivan Gotti. And Fabio Aru, of course.
With that courageous attack at the Piani, Aru won the third stage of the Petit Tour with 59 seconds on Manuel Bongiorno and 1:32 on Davide Formolo. In the general classification, he jumped to the lead with 1:44 on Manfredi and 2:43 on Pierre Paolo Penasa.
With our violent acceleration — on ramps that started at 20% and then continued up in the same way until reaching the 1,330 metre height of the Piani (which ironically means flat in Italian) — I knew immediately that Fabio Aru, the Sardinian rider from Palazzago, was destined for great things.
Fabio Aru on the Colle delle Finestre at the Giro 2015. Photo: Pier Maulini/SWPix
Aru had already won the Giro Della Valle d'Aosta in 2011, and with that show on the Piani, he won again in 2012, at the end of which he inflicted 3:25 on Russian Sergei Chernetski and 3:50 on Manfredi. A few months later, Aru had turned professional with Astana, along with a certain Vincenzo Nibali.
Seeing the birth of Aru's star among the amateurs was an immense blessing — a memory I often recount. And what followed after that was no accident.
However, despite a meteoric rise with Astana, Aru has faced many hard times since 2017. And, surprisingly - when signs of his comeback were just appearing – Aru surprised (almost) everyone and decided to retire. The Vuelta 2021 was, in fact, his last race as a professional. And, to date, he has no regrets.
As the Italian national champion, Aru wears the yellow jersey in Peyragudes, at the Tour in 2017. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
"I am convinced that my age (31) would have allowed me to do another three to four seasons at a high level," Aru said. "But from the moment he made that decision, I was happy and sure that it was the right one, and I still am. I get a bit angry with those who tell me I've retired. I've simply finished a sporting and racing career, but I'm keen and busy with other things."
On the various projects he is involved in, due to contractual issues, Aru remains quiet. But he does hint that his future will still be linked to cycling, and we will see him working with companies and events in the future. He also adds that his ability to speak English and Spanish (he also has recently started French lessons) is helping him to outline plans.
But he has no doubts about the past moments of his cycling career: the best and the hardest ones.
"The best moment was winning the Italian championship," he says. "Despite the stages, I won in the grand tours, the Italian championship moved me so much and remains a special day. The withdrawal at the  Tour, on the other hand, was the most negative moment, to which was added a family loss two days later."
Aru wins atop of the Planche des Belles Filles, still with the national champion jersey, still at the Tour in 2017. Photo: Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Aru adds that it was at that very moment, when he was going through a very tough personal and professional time — and where he most needed support — that he felt abandoned and dispirited. "But that was a lesson too," he adds.
If he had to go back and decide what he would do in the same way, and what to change, Aru says he would maintain the same determination and precision in doing things that allowed him to achieve great results. But, if he could change something, he would try to be less spontaneous and less skin-deep in his attachment to certain people.
However, even these negative experiences were formative. And even today, in facing the challenges of his new job, the 31-year-old from San Gavino Monreale continues to apply the mentality and methodology of an athlete who wants to do his job well. He no longer wears a team outfit, but his determination and desire to work hard are the same as when he was training and competing.
Aru's grit and his famous facial expressions. Here at the Vuelta in 2019. Photo: Zac Williams/SWpix.com
"Even though I'm done competing at a high level, cycling has given me determination and the will to sacrifice," says Aru. "I have a great desire to work and get involved in many projects. And on some, the bike will continue to have its importance. When I was a professional athlete, I was very precise and fussy. I am also very precise and fussy in my work too, and I will be in the future."
And although last week some speculated that Aru might return to a professional career (perhaps in a duathlon or triathlon), Aru, at least for the moment, has denied the rumours that followed the photograph of him running on a treadmill in a Zurich clinic. However, the passion for running is concrete, and Aru has some ideas for the future in that area too.
But there have been weeks when Aru has also ridden 60km. And the choice of running is due to the ease of fitting a training session between professional commitments.
"When I come home at six o'clock, I obviously can't go out on my bike," he says. "Sometimes I do a bit of turbo, but I also like to go out in the dark for a run. And I like it as a sport, but there's no way I can do a triathlon next year. So I want to take part in a triathlon in the future. But a future thing, which is not about 2022."
At the Vuelta in 2021, together with Richard Carapaz. Photo: Getty ImagesThe photo in the biomechanics centre in Lugano was due to his desire to check his running technique and make insoles. "It turned out that technically I have a lot to improve," he says, laughing. "The engine is there, but the technique needs to be improved."
And at least for the next five years, Aru tells us from Sardinia (where he has returned for the Christmas holidays), his home will remain in Lugano. Where since the end of the Vuelta he has been able to enjoy some well-deserved rest and free time with his wife Valentina and daughter Ginevra.
"I like the fact that even if, during the day, I am busy in meetings or am away, it is a marginal part," he says. "In the evening, I am almost always at home and have much more time to be with my family. Before, on the other hand, for at least 230/240 days a year, I was away."
The ITT in Santiago de Compostela at the Vuelta 2021, his last race as a professional. Photo: Getty Images
One last question comes to mind. Of those many days on the bike as a professional cyclist, what was the toughest one for Fabio Aru?
"I suffered so much in the Mortirolo [2015 Giro] stage when Contador punctured on the descent, and we attacked him with Astana," he says. "Then he caught us again, broke away from me, and I lost three minutes."
And, of course, that stage to the Piani di Tavagnasco.
Perhaps was the moment I was lucky enough to Fabio Aru's talent take flight, and was convinced he was destined for great things. It appears he was indeed. Perhaps his most significant chapter, whether inside or outside of cycling, still lies ahead of him.