Vincenzo Nibali is the figure who commands the lion’s share of the attention at Bahrain-Merida, but it was Ramunas Navardauskas who ended up achieving the milestone of the new team’s first ever victory, putting himself in the driving seat at the Vuelta a San Juan.
The Lithuanian produced an unmatched time trial on stage 3 of the Argentinian season-opener, with Nibali finishing 35 seconds down, and he now leads the race by three seconds from Bauke Mollema.
Nibali, naturally, was one of the big pre-race favourites, but Navardauskas’ win creates a dilemma over leadership and approach for Bahrain-Merida on the stage 5 summit finish – the only other decisive stage here from a general classification perspective. There is plenty of climbing on the pacrous, and the final climb rises to over 2,500m but, as Mollema explained in the post-race press conference, many riders have been out to recce it and doubt it will be very selective, with long straight sections and a steady gradient that averages just 4.4 per cent.
Navardauskas is a solid all-rounder but, despite the GC complexion, he indicated that Nibali is still top tog at the team.
“We'll see on the day. Vincenzo is a big, big rider, and our hopes are with him," he said. "The climbing day will be really hard. We will need all the team to get a good result and still Nibali is the best to do it. It’s sad to say but I think Nibali is still much better for the climb - even if it’s not that steep.”
You sense Nibali won’t mind too much either way, and is no doubt more pleased that one of the riders who has been selected to provide domestique duties for him at the Giro d’Italia in May has turned in such a strong performance.
"It’s the first race of year and every rider is in a different shape," said Navardauskas. "You’re always nervous before the first race because you don’t know how your legs are, but the results show you if you’re ready or not."
Navardauskas felt it was time to shake things up after six years with Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream set-up and moved to the new Bahrain-Merida set-up for a new challenge.
“I hope I won’t disappoint them,” were his humble words at a pre-season training camp, but he has ended up responsible for a hugely significant moment in the team’s history.
“To be the first one to win for the team, it’s something special for the whole team,” he said. “And for sure it won’t be the last one. It shows how the team is in good shape and good form, and we’re looking forward to having a good season.”
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