A little over two weeks ago Ramunas Navardauskas did not know he would race the Tour de France.
After the team won the stage two team time trial, the 23-year old Lithuanian national road champion can now count himself as a stage winner of that very race. Since then, with Thor Hushovd in the yellow jersey, Ramunas has been a regular on the sharp end of the peloton—often trading monster pulls with Dave Zabriskie, who is nearly a decade his senior.
When we sit down for a chat with him at the Tour, Ramunas says he really had no idea he was even being considered for the Tour team. And when he did find out that Jonathan Vaughters had put him on the short list, the easygoing rider says he he assumed it was just as a backup in case one of the “real” Tour riders got sick or injured.
“It was a big surprise to be in the top ten,” he explains. “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.”
“It was a surprise when he chose me.” He still smiles with amazement that he is here, sitting in a hotel after riding another stage in July across the roads of western France.
“At first I thought I’m still not ready because it’s my first year I come to the pros.” Even after the race started, he recalls asking Vaughters, “are you sure it’s my place here?“
He mentions that there are so many worthy riders on the Garmin-Cervélo team, and with so much experience, that now that he is here, he takes his job seriously. “To race with these guys is a big responsibility. I’m trying to do my best to not disappoint the other guys.”
As for how the Grand Boucle compares to other races, Ramunas says the pace is faster and more unrelenting. And “it’s much more nervous. Each rider is fighting to get to the front and it’s much more harder than any other race.”
That said, the modest rider who has spent lots of kilometers doing just that, is enjoying it. For example, on the windy, crash-filled 158 kilometer stage five to Cap Fréhel on the Brittany coast, Zabriskie and Ramunas were trading long pulls to keep the break at a reasonable distance and preserve Thor Hushovd’s yellow jersey.
“My thing,” he recalls, “was to do this with Zabriskie to pull the peloton. When you are working from the beginning no one comes in the front and pushes you. It’s more relaxed. It’s hard to be in the front, but it’s more relaxed. You don’t need to push, to fight for position.”
For cyclists who are not professionals, the humility with which Ramunas talks about his job is astonishing. “It’s not so hard, even if you ride 100 kilometers always at the front, (working) with the guys who are changing with you, you don’t need to go full, full gas.”
That said, when it comes time to position sprinters Hushovd or Tyler Farrar during a stage’s closing kilometers, Ramunas says, the pace is brutal. “At the end, you always have to kill yourself to get to the front to fight for position. It’s hard!”
And he says just because Garmin-Cervélo has the race lead, the respect the yellow jersey commands in the peloton does not make those final kilometers any easier. “It brings a bit more respect, but you still have to fight.”
“There is a really big difference from TV and being here. Here it’s much more nicer to see,” he notes of his inside-the-peloton perspective on the event. He also says he enjoys riding next to stars who, just months ago as a rising amateur, he looked up to on TV. “It’s a strange feeling when such guys, they come next to you and like, wow! It’s a nice feeling.”
When he was still a kid, a friend introduced Ramunas to bike racing. “My friend started cycling, and he said, ‘Maybe you should try.’” Ramunas fell in love with the sport, and was eventually noticed by Lithuania’s national team coach. Now his friend no longer races and Ramunas is in the Tour.
Ramunas says he is surprised by how much support he gets from friends and family back home. “All my family is watching. All my cousins, they are always texting. Always supporting me. It’s like, wow, it’s so nice!”
Jonathan Vaughters is renown for his knack for identifying young talent, and Ramunas is further proof of it. Asked what it means to ride for Garmin-Cervélo, Ramunas says he had heard from the pro cycling grapevine the team was a good place for young riders, “to develop, to go upstairs step by step.”
He had a few other pro teams approach him when he was still racing with French amateur team Vélo Club La Pomme Marseille, but “In the beginning I wanted to go with this team.”
After meeting with Vaughters last year in Girona and doing some fitness tests, the gentle-mannered and self-effacing rider says “I don’t know, maybe after that he liked me?” Vaughters offered him a position and “I’m really happy to be here.”
More photos of Ramunas Navardauskas:
In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter @argylearmada