Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) "lacks the kick" that his Vuelta a España rivals have after a 2018 season of difficulties.
The Italian is struggling in the Vuelta, not showing any of the brilliance that won him the race in 2015. A crash on stage two only made matters worse.
"I am already distanced in the GC," he told Cycling Weekly.
"I lack that kick in the final, that's what I lack. Truly, I lack the rhythm of the strongest riders, I still haven't found it.
"The only thing to do is remain focused and live day by day and see how it goes. Maybe I'll get better day after day to stay with the top riders."
The Sardinian began the Giro d'Italia this year with the idea to give his new UAE Team Emirates a win. He could not start the 100th edition the year before, which departed from his island, due to a crash in training beforehand.
The Aru spark, however, could not be found this May. He had won three mountain stages over the years and placed second overall in 2015 behind Alberto Contador. The 2018 edition was nothing like the past and he abandoned on stage 19.
After several exams, he said that he is not gluten intolerant, but his body struggles to absorb pasta and carbohydrates well. He limits their intake and avoids dairy products.
"That's part of life," said sports director Philippe Mauduit when asked about Aru's highs and lows over the years. He worked with Alberto Contador in team Tinkoff-Saxo Bank and Vincenzo Nibali in team Bahrain-Merida.
"All champions in their career they have these 50/50 moments, where you don't know what's going wrong. He has to accept that because next year he'll be strong like he was in the past. I have no doubt about that."
Aru rebuilt for the Vuelta, resuming racing again at the Tour de Wallonie in July before racing the Tour of Poland. He began the Vuelta in Málaga with visions of success but crashed on stage two, when rivals like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) began to fire, and he dropped back even further.
In the first big mountain finish to La Covatilla, he lost 40 seconds. Now, he must look ahead to this weekend's mountain stages in Asturias to see if the overall classification is out the window. He currently sits 13th overall at 1-49 minutes behind leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
"I'm not putting a number on it, on any goal," Aru added. "It's been a difficult season for me, a little particular where I still haven't found the same pedal stroke as my competitors so we need to see if it will arrive."
Aru's former captain and fellow Italian Vincenzo Nibali, is returning to form in the Vuelta after fracturing a vertebra in the Tour de France. He is slowly looking like 'The Shark' that won all three Grand Tours over the last eight years. With his return, a stage win is possible and a role as leader in the Italian national team for the World Championship road race. Aru, asked about the Worlds, is unsure.
"The Worlds, it's always an honour to put on the maglia azzurra, but I don't know if it's possible to be in the team," Aru said.
"You need to be going strongly to race in the team, so, for now, when I am not going as I'd like, it's hard to say."
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