CARAVAGGIO, Italy (VN) — What a difference a year makes for Garmin-Sharp.
This time last May, the team’s fortunes were soaring into the decisive final stages where Ryder Hesjedal would deliver the team’s first grand tour with the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia.
Flash forward to 2013, and Garmin is limping toward the finish line in Brescia. Hesjedal is gone, and much of the remaining team has been licking its collective wounds of crashes, illnesses, allergies, and just plain bad luck.
But a funny thing has happened. Rather than wallow in their collective self-pity, the riders have kept plugging away. Instead of throwing in the towel, they’ve recalibrated their compass, and have come out with a stage win with Ramunas Navardauskas.
“Last year, everything went perfectly; this year, everything is a bit of a struggle,” director Charly Wegelius told VeloNews. “They’re not machines. That’s also the beauty of it. No one expected [Bradley] Wiggins to go out, and no one expected [Mauro] Santambrogio to have that moment yesterday like he did in such a routine stage. That’s sport, that’s life. That’s why people love cycling, that it isn’t a script.”
Although the team is disappointed it’s not riding for pink in the final week of the Giro, the squad has taken a philosophical take on the events.
In cycling, even the best-laid plans can turn upside-down in an instant. Garmin brought a team to protect Hesjedal, but the American squad is not going to give up because things didn’t pan out as it had hoped.
Tom Danielson said the team is trying to go with the flow, and take the bad with the good.
“It happens. I remember in 2011, we had that perfect Tour. It was my first Tour, and we’re standing on the podium in Paris with team GC, and David Millar said, ‘hey guys, enjoy this, this isn’t going to happen again for awhile,'” Danielson said. “And last year, we’re all on the ground. We broke $120,000 worth of bikes, and then one month later we clean up in Colorado.
“But that’s cycling — it’s a bitch. Cycling is a bitch. That’s why we’re all addicted to it. That’s why we all love it. That’s why it’s so beautiful when it goes right.”
Riders and staff said they are keeping their heads in the race despite the setback involving Hesjedal’s early exit. Millar also pulled out with illness while grand tour rookie Nathan Haas crashed out Tuesday.
Peter Stetina, a key member of last year’s winning squad, is hanging in. The Coloradan has crashed three times and stepped gingerly out of the Garmin team bus Wednesday morning.
“The body’s a hurting unit at this point. The morale is pretty low, I’m not going to lie,” he told VeloNews. “My body’s at the breaking point, with sickness and crashes and muscular issues; I am just not the normal Pete. I don’t have the normal power. I am just staying in the race to get them some water bottles. It’s some of the worst luck I’ve ever had in a race.”
The Giro started on solid footing, with Hesjedal looking fit and confident. Things started to unwind when the Canadian lost nearly two minutes to his GC rivals in the long time trial in stage 8. Then he uncharacteristically lost the wheel the next day in a short, steep climb on the road to Florence, dropping another minute.
What the team was hoping was just a hiccup turned out to be something much more serious. Hesjedal simply could not go deep when he needed to follow the accelerations from the pink jersey contenders. He did not start stage 13.
Garmin didn’t throw in the towel and it’s been the unlikely character of Navardauskas who’s lifted the team’s spirits. The tall, lanky Lithuanian won stage 11, rode into the breakaway on Tuesday to finish fourth, and raised his hands to celebrate what he appeared to think was a second stage win when he was second on Wednesday.
“This year, it’s just been bad luck from beginning. Our silver lining is the ‘honey badger,’” Stetina said, referring to Navardauskas’ nickname. “It’s all about Ramunas; it’s pretty amazing. He’s suffering like the rest of us, but he still manages to get into the breaks.”
Navardauskas was all smiles Wednesday morning.
“I made it ok through the first week of the Giro. When Ryder was not feeling good, the team gave me the freedom to attack,” Navardauskas told VeloNews. “Everyone is still fighting. We want to win more stages.”
The closing stages of the Giro will offer a few more chances for Garmin. Danielson said he’s hoping to come around after sleeping 23 hours on the rest day to be able to challenge for the climbing time trial. Friday’s and Saturday’s stages are so hard, with the GC still on the line, that Wegelius said it’s extremely difficult for riders to win out of a breakaway.
“The riders are used to it. They get used to dealing with disappointment and adversity,” he said. “Even a rider who wins 20 races a year, that means they’ve lost 80. Since Ryder left, the team has shown really good fighting spirit. We have won a stage, and there are a lot of teams who have not.”