It was Aru’s third cyclo-cross race of the winter after he made his final appearances in UAE Team Emirates colours last week in Ancona and San Fior, near Treviso.
Racing off-road marks something of a return for Aru, who competed successfully in cyclo-cross as a junior and under-23 rider before switching his attention fully to the road.
“First race with my new team @nttprocycling,” Aru wrote on social media after Sunday’s race. “Feeling better in the mud but the most important thing is that I’m having fun like a child doing his first races. This is sport, this is my passion!”
Aru wore a black Assos jersey bearing the logo of the Qhubeka charity in Sunday’s race, which was won by Gioele Bertolini (Team Bramati). Qhubeka Assos have yet to present their new kit for the 2021 season.
Assos stepped in to secure the South African team’s future for the next two years after previous sponsor NTT withdrew its backing at the end of the 2020 campaign.
In early December, Qhubeka Assos announced the arrival of Aru, who won the Vuelta a España in 2015. He also placed on the podium of the Giro d’Italia on two occasions and finished 5th overall at the 2017 Tour de France during his time at Astana, but he endured a difficult three-year spell at UAE Team Emirates.
After a low-key 2018 season, Aru underwent surgery to correct a constriction in his iliac artery in the spring of 2019. His final appearance for UAE Team Emirates came at the 2020 Tour de France, when he was heavily criticised by team advisor Giuseppe Saronni.
On signing for Qhubeka Assos, the 30-year-old expressed optimism that he could rebuild his career. “I know that I’m capable again of similar success,” he said on that occasion. In Ancona last week, meanwhile, Aru highlighted that his cyclo-cross participation marked a return to his beginnings.
“It all started here,” Aru told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I started racing cyclo-cross and on mountain bikes when I was under-16 and junior. In the last few years on the road, I wasn’t able to participate in any cyclo-cross races but this year there was the chance to ride a few and I took it.”