The other day an interviewer asked me to put on my fan cap and tell his readers who my favorite team riders were. I mentioned Ramunas Navardauskas–the 23-year old Lithuanian national champ who held the 2012 Giro d’Italia GC lead for two days after Garmin-Barracuda won the May 9 team time trial.
Navardauskas on July 15, 2011 in Lourdes, France after Thor Hushovd won the 13th stage of the Tour in a breakaway on the descent of the 5,607-foot Col d’Aubisque.
Ramunas Navardauskas with Robby Ketchell, the team’s sports science director and the braintrust behind their team time trial wins at the Giro and Tour de France.
I first met Ramunas at the team’s winter training camp in Girona, Spain. At the time, the then 23-year old gave me the impression of a wide-eyed innocent awestruck at the fact that he was even in a room with the likes of Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde and world champion Thor Hushovd. And with reason. It was January, 2011, Ramunas’ first week on a ProTour squad.
Vaughters had just pulled Navardauskas up from the French amateur team Vélo Club La Pomme Marseille.
During stage 15 of the 2011 Tour de France, Ramunas Navardauskas streaks through Abeilhan, a hamlet in southern France’s Languedoc-Roussilon region.
In chapter 5 of Argyle Armada, Vaughters explains that Navardauskas is one of the most promising talents he’s ever encountered.
Navardauskas after a wet stage 11 of the Tour de France in Lavaur.
After catching wind of the rider from Lithuania–a West Virgina-sized country between Finland, Poland and the Baltic Sea that’s more known for its basketball players than cyclists–Vaughters ran Navardauskas through a battery of physiological performance tests and found that he was putting out “6 watts per kilogram–better than the guys we were sending to the Tour” in 2010.
Navardauskas passes through Uriage-Les-Baines during the 2011 Tour de France stage 20 time trial outside Grenoble.
If Navardauskas was so talented, why hadn’t other ProTour teams already nabbed him?
“He won too much,” Vaughters explained with signature frankness. “The Frenchies all thought he was doping.”
Navardauskas rides behind Dave Zabriskie near Avranches during stage six of the 2011 Tour de France.
Vaughters quietly monitored Navardauskas’ performances throughout 2010. On more than one occasion, within hours of him turning in a winning performance, Vaughters sent Ramunas a plane ticket to the Slipstream headquarters in Girona.
In the renowned Provence wine village of Chȃteauneuf du Pape, Navardauskas is about to enjoy a well-earned desert during the second rest day of the 2011 Tour de France.
There, within hours of his race, the team’s doctors conducted blood and urine tests as well as power output examinations. What they found confirmed Vaughters’ sense that the Lithuanian was simply an extraordinary athlete. And an honest one, too. “The objective data pointed to a completely clean rider that was just super talented and super strong,” Vaughters recalls.
During stage six of the 2011 Tour de France, Navardauskas, Tom Danielson, David Millar and Ryder Hesjedal keep Thor Hushovd in the yellow jersey for another day by drilling it near the town of Vire.
In mid June, Vaughters sent Navardauskas a message that he was not expecting: he was on the Tour de France team.
Navardauskas scales the Col du Galibier at the end of a Tour de France stage 18 that began in Pinerolo, Italy.
“It was a big surprise to be in the top ten,” Ramunas told me at last year’s Tour. “When Jonathan sent me the email that I am top-ten on the list, I thought, I will be the guy who, if something happens to these other nine guys, then maybe on the last day I will come to the Tour.”
Navardauskas shows the strain of the Pyrenees at the finish of Tour de France stage 14 on the Plateau de Beille.
Today, less than a year after his first Tour de France, Ramunas has two Giro maglia rosa leader’s jerseys for his wall. For a rider who started cycling as a kid when a friend got a bike and said, “Maybe you should try,” to Giro race leader, Ramunas Navardauskas’ story proves that in some cases, nice guys do finish first.
In Paris, Ryder Hesjedal congratulates Navardauskas for completing his first Tour de France–a race he only learned he would race 10 days before the start.
You can read another Mark Johnson profile of Ramunas Navardauskas here.
Learn more about Ramunas and other Garmin riders in Argyle Armada.
In the book, writer-photographer Mark Johnson was embedded with the team for an entire season. The book includes incisive text about the business of cycling and what it’s like to ride for an elite cycling team. Order the book from your local bookstore, bike shop, or from these retailers: