Lithuanian in maglia rosa after team time trial victory
Ramunas Navardauskas has been nicknamed "The Honey Badger" by his Garmin-Barracuda teammate Dave Zabriskie - and the 1.9m tall Lithuanian certainly acted like the proverbially tenacious animal on Wednesday when he fought tooth and nail not to lose contact with his teammates in the closing kilometres of the Giro d'Italia's team time trial. And with a pink jersey at stake, who could blame him for being so determined?
"I was going really deep in the last part of the course," Navardauskas told reporters in his post-race press conference. "I knew if I stayed within their time I could get the jersey and the gap kept on opening. But the team was trying hard, and we managed to stayed together. It was impressive how hard they were trying."
Just like in 2008, when the same team (then known as Slipstream-Chipotle) took the team time trial win in Palermo, a pink jersey was at stake. Four years ago it went to Christian Vande Velde, also part of Wednesday's winning team, and fourth across the line in Verona.
Navardauskas's sixth place, though, in the opening short time trial in Denmark, meant that after Alex Rasmussen, third in Herning, was dropped mid-way on Wednesday's team time trial, the Lithuanian was next in line for the Giro throne.
"I'm not usually so bad in team time trials," Navardauskas said - and in fact he rode his first Tour in 2011 as a first year pro last year partly for that reason, a gamble that paid off when Garmin won.
"But with Alex there, too, we both had a chance of getting the pink jersey. So I did everything I could to help him and thought that even if he finished ahead of me, if I stayed with the team I would have a chance of getting the white [jersey for best young rider]." Navardauskas is now leading that competition by 13 seconds on the man he ousted from pink, Taylor Phinney (BMC).
Navardauskas recognised that Wednesday's rolling TTT course would be quite a challenge. "Today was a special course, the first time I did it I was a bit nervous, it was quite technical with cornering and that climb in the middle. With nine guys working as a unit, it was quite tough after each corner.
"But after doing a few laps, we started to improve. I realised that it was technical but not impossible or too dangerous. We stayed together, we had good riders for covering the climbs. It was a nice course."
Much of the press conference was dedicated to finding out more about Navardauskas, barely known in cycling as a second year pro with just one win - the Lithuanian nationals last year - and not a little to the pronunciation of his name.
"They call me Gnu-Gnu back home," he said of where he started racing at age 11 near his farm home in rural Lithuania. Unusually in a country with a strong tradition in basketball and for someone who is so tall, he didn't ‘shoot any hoops' "because in the closest village to my home, all they cared about was football and bikes."
Now 24, he raced for a season in the UCI's talent-spotting program in the World Cycling Centre at Aigle, Switzerland, in 2006 and also for a while in an Italian amateur squad, Team Piemonte, in 2009. He then turned pro in 2011 with Garmin.
Initially targeting the Classics this season, after breaking his collarbone in a crash on the third stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, he switched targets to the Giro. He admits, however, that being so new to the professional side of bike racing that he has no clear idea yet of where his talents as a pro lie. His spell in the lead of the Giro, though - a first for Lithuania - could give The Honey Badger a few ideas about where next to dig for success.