He lost almost a year of his career but after a lengthy lay off, heart surgery, and a period of self-doubt and worry, Ramunas Navardauskas is back on the bike and ready to make up for lost time.
The Bahrain-Merida rider was just a few months into his first year with the team when in April 2017 he began to notice an irregular heart-rate. After a brief period of rest he returned but, when the problem recurred at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, he was sent to a specialist who diagnosed him with a cardiac arrhythmia. Complete rest was prescribed, with heart surgery following later in the year.
Now, over six months on from the worrying diagnosis, the Lithuanian is back in the bunch and set to compete in the Tour Down Under, which starts Tuesday. In fact, he made his first competitive return to racing on Sunday in the 50.6km People's Choice Classic and, although he made few shockwaves in the race, he was more than happy to make it through unscathed.
"It feels like I lost a year of my career. I couldn't train, I couldn't go on the rollers or do anything, and it meant that I lost my form and my power," he tells Cyclingnews the morning after his first race since last June.
"When I first realised what was wrong, I was scared and my head went down but after one or two months, when I found out that the problem could be fixed, I calmed down but I was super nervous coming back last night in the crit. I was afraid that I'd be at the back and barely able to hold the wheel. I was ready for that but, in the end, it wasn't that difficult. If you want to be at the front it's a different story but staying in the bunch wasn't so bad."
It was at the Tour of Croatia last May when Navardauskas first began to notice that something was wrong. His heart-rate had become erratic and he pulled out of the race after just a few stages as a precaution.
"It was going from 120 to 150 beats-per-minute in just a few seconds. I asked for the doctor and the next day he organised a health check that showed that something was wrong. I took it easy for a while and I felt okay but when I did the Dauphiné but the doctors said that I had the same problem."
Navardauskas has come back from broken bones but having a heart scare understandably feels far more serious. The Lithuanian could deal with most things that life as a pro could throw at him, but he admits that the element of not knowing how to treat his initial condition was the most difficult part.
However, with surgery having fixed the condition, he is starting to rediscover his form. It will be a long process but, come the middle of the season, he is hoping to reach his best condition, and potentially help Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour de France.
"When you find out that something is wrong with your heart it's super scary but then the doctors explain what you can do about it, and it calms you down. At the start I was stressed, though. The doctors and the team really helped me, though. There were good people around me.
"I've only been training for about two months now. I'm gaining kilometres and I don't want to push too fast," he said. "In the middle of the season I should be okay and I'm looking forward to that. I'll do the Dauphiné this year and maybe the Tour but my numbers are growing in training. I'm hoping for the best and being calm. I know I had a problem, I know I have to come back, but I'm taking it step-by-step. I think that if I do everything smart and work with the team then I can get back to where I was."
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