Lithuania’s national coach Arturas Kasputis has witnessed first hand his country’s first Grand Tour leader’s jersey in his capacity as sporting director for AG2R-La Mondiale at the Giro d’Italia. 24-year-old Ramunas Navardauskas wore the maglia rosa at the start of stage 5 in Modena, something that no cyclist from the Baltic state has ever done before.
“Not many of us [Lithuanian riders] have ridden the Giro but all of us have performed,” said Kasputis, who opened the history books when he came third in the prologue in Nice in 1998. Tomas Vaitkus won a stage in 2006 riding for AG2R, while Ignatas Konovalovas won the closing individual time trial of the centennial Giro in 2009 in Rome. In the meantime, Raimundas Rumsas finished sixth overall in 2003 - but he is more remembered for a doping scandal at the 2002 Tour de France when he finished in third place.
Kasputis was one of the first two heroes of Lithuanian cycling when he took the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in the team pursuit. Under the banner of the Soviet Union, alongside Viatcheslav Ekimov and Dimitri Nielubin, there was another Lithuanian, Gintautas Umaras, who also won the individual pursuit and became the first cyclist from his country to turn professional with Alfa Lum in 1989. Umaras retired after one season with Coor’s on the US scene and became a Member of Parliament when Lithuania took its independence in 1991 after 52 years of Russian sujugation.
Kasputis, 45, has fond memories of cycling at the time of communism. “We had a lot of bike races”, he recalled. “With our respective Dynamo clubs, we travelled to a lot of events. Now in Lithuania, there’s only one race for Elite riders: the national championship. Last year, a race for juniors was revived after 24 years: the Baltich Chain Tour. But for the young talents from Lithuania, the situation is similar to what I experienced twenty years ago. It’s necessary to go abroad.”
Kasputis started his career in 1992 with Colombian team Postobon. Navardauskas joined the UCI world cycling center in Aigle, Switzerland. On the day he races in pink at the Giro d’Italia, Hein Verbruggen and Pat McQuaid celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the WCC. Navardauskas turned pro with Garmin-Cervélo after riding as an amateur with VC La Pomme Marseille in France. His compatriot Edvaldas Siskevicius won a stage of the Tour de Bretagne two weeks ago with La Pomme.
“To join a foreign team is still the way for Lithuanians to make a career”, said Kasputis, who took the helm of the national team for the world championships and forthcoming Olympic Games last year. Lithuania will be able to line up two roadies in London. One of them will do the individual time trial as well. Navardauskas is obviously a candidate alongside Movistar’s Konovalovas, GreenEdge’s Aidis Kruopis, Siskevicius and current national champion for ITT, Gediminas Bagdonas of An Post-Sean Kelly.
After claiming the pink jersey, Navardauskas sent an SMS to Kasputis, saying that he couldn't believe what had happened. “He’s a rider with great capacities”, Kasputis described. “He does the job at 100% and doesn’t think of the following day. During stage 3 in Denmark, he went in a breakaway to try and get bonus, which he did, but that might explain why he had some troubles to remain with his team-mates towards the end of the team time trial.
“It was no coincidence that Garmin put him in the Tour de France team in his first year with them. He’s a great rider for TTT but everyone has seen him working like Hell for Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar. On the flat, he was the most active rider at the head of the peloton. He’s got class and a big desire for riding hard for his team. He can have a great career. At the Giro, it might difficult for him to ride for GC but he can win stages. With time and work, he’ll win races. He’s got a great sense of sacrifice. He’s a fantastic team player.”