TREVISO, Italy (VN) — Throughout the first half of 2013, Garmin-Sharp riders were angling to earn a place at the start of the Giro d’Italia because they wanted to be part of team history. Ramunas Navardauskas earned a ticket and made the most of it when he saw the floundering team’s new approach to the race produce a stage win.
Following Ryder Hesjedal’s historic victory in last year’s corsa rosa, none of his teammates wanted to miss out on a shot at the repeat of the pink jersey. Despite riding into the Giro confident of success, things went flat for Hesjedal just as soon as the roads went up. Tuesday saw Hesjedal struggle on terrain where he usually shines, forfeiting all hope of riding for GC and forcing the team to reconsider its options.
Last night at the team hotel, Garmin riders and staff tried to put the bad spell behind them and change the chip. Forget the GC; attack and try to win stages — those were the new marching orders.
“That’s racing. The riders are human. We cannot program what we’d like to happen,” explained Garmin director Bingen Fernández. “We have to change the way we think about this Giro. We have a strong team. We can still take something out of this Giro.”
Less than 24 hours after Garmin’s Giro seemed to fade to black, the team’s fortunes turned around dramatically.
Ramunas Navardauskas, a 25-year-old Lithuanian, was just the man for the job.
Wednesday’s transition stage out of the Dolomites had breakaway written all over it. A strong time trialist and budding GC rider, he was a winner of a stage at the Tour de Romandie earlier this month.
With the team giving him the green light to attack on Wednesday, Navardauskas was ready to take his chance.
Once a big group formed on the stage’s first climb, Navardauskas revealed he has some tactical chops to go with his engine. He played it patient when Patrick Gretsch (Argos-Shimano) went alone too early. When he and Daniel Oss (BMC Racing) gave chase, it soon became very obvious that Navardauskas was on a good day.
Gretsch couldn’t hold pace when they came up to him, and neither could Oss when Navardauskas started to turn the screws in the final 10 kilometers.
Oss gave the ultimate compliment afterward, saying he was happy with second because Navardauskas “was the strongest.”
The win is the biggest of Navardauskas’ young but promising career.
At 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, he has a huge natural engine and still has a long way to progress. He can already ride well in short stage races (he was second in the 2012 Tour of Denmark), has already confirmed himself as a capable time trialist, and also has promise in the classics.
Last year, Navardauskas got the call-up to start the Giro barely a week before the race started. He was quickly rewarded after helping Garmin drill home the team time trial win in stage 4, becoming the first Lithuanian to wear the pink jersey.
On Wednesday, his victory was a salve for the team’s woes.
“Ryder had a bad day yesterday. That’s racing, but we will keep fighting,” he said after the win. “Today we started a new type of race. The whole team is racing differently. We will try to keep winning more stages.”
Hesjedal was grateful for his younger teammate’s victory. Speaking to reporters at the finish line, he said the win would help bolster the team’s spirits going into the second half of the Giro.
Hesjedal was relieved to make it through the relatively routine stage. With the breakaway up the road, the rest of the peloton could get through the stage sticking to script.
Speaking to VeloNews before the start of the stage, Hesjedal was still at a loss to explain why he was struggling to follow the big moves.
He vowed to stay in the race, in large part to honor the Giro, which he won last year to become the first Canadian to win a grand tour.
“I want to honor the race. We’ll see what that situation is. I will support my team, the race, the fans. The support’s been incredible. I just have to keep going to see what happens,” he said.
The team will have more chances. Peter Stetina, who worked hard last year to help Hesjedal win pink, said the team would be ready to leave its mark in the mountains.
“This team is loaded with climbers,” Stetina said. “Ryder has some problems and we will continue to support him. We have strong riders on this team. We will still be looking for opportunities.”
With the Giro barely at its halfway mark, Garmin will have plenty of chances; it just won’t be riding for pink.