When Cyclingnews sat down with Vincenzo Nibali at the Bahrain-Merida team's introductory camp in Croatia at the end of last month, the Italian robustly refuted the notion that his new squad might lack the firepower and influence of Astana, and one of the first names he reached for was that of Ramunas Navardauskas.
The Lithuanian, signed from Cannondale-Drapac, is one of the riders selected to be part of the gruppo Nibali – the core of riders who will train and race with the team's figurehead and marquee signing all the way up to the Giro d'Italia.
"Nibali is a star," says Navardauskas, almost in awe, like many in the team, of the man who has won all three Grand Tours.
"I'm really excited about being a part of it. With Nibali it's very important to be very strong, to be part of his team. If you're not at your very best it's better to take someone else."
"But I'm really looking forward to being part of that squad. There'll be a lot of Italians around, maybe I'll learn some Italian, because so far it's zero. I know from experience that Italians are a really friendly bunch, and I'm just looking forward to seeing how it works out."
Navardauskas had spent his entire professional career, since 2011, at Jonathan Vaughters' Slipstream set-up (now Cannondale-Drapac), and he felt it was time for a change, something new. Even before the team had really begun to take shape, the Bahrain management were on the phone, as early as April, to try and lure him across – "It's a good thing when you know the team is really wanting you and waiting for you," he said.
Navardauskas has acquired a reputation as a reliable rider, but one with a keen nose for a decent breakaway and a fast finish. He helped Ryder Hesjedal win the 2012 Giro d'Italia and then won a stage the following edition, before going on to take a Tour de France stage from a breakaway in 2014.
He still feels, however, that he has much to prove.
"This year I wanted to be better but early in the season I had some crashes, repeatedly, like every three weeks more or less, and that just killed my form. I wasn't exactly happy with my results so I really want to come back strongly and show, for myself first, that I'm a strong rider."
The word Navardauskas repeatedly reaches for is 'useful' – tilts for personal glory are pretty low down his priority list at this point.
"It's more about being consistent, and being useful for the team, being someone they can rely on," he says. "So they know that if they say 'your job is to do one thing' then you can always do exactly that thing. I would like to have that 'frame' where everyone will know that when it comes to my frame I will be able to do it."
Try to take his own chances
Fans of Navardauskas' instinctive, opportunistic, and attacking streak needn't worry too much; he still says "I'd love to race for my own results when Nibali or whoever is out of the picture." But he points out that it can't form the foundations of what he does. Rather than banging relentlessly on the door, he must get on with the hard graft and keep his eyes open for when it creaks ajar.
"That's the thing. When someone comes and says 'for this stage I can do this'…I don't know how they do that. Because for me it's more about opportunities, and when you get one everything has to be on your side, it needs to be your lucky day and you need to be strong.
"It's similar to what happened for me at the Giro when I got in the break and won the stage. It was the same story at the Tour de France, I got in breakaway, the breakaway was caught, I got in another breakaway, punctured, had to come back to the breakaway, then there was a mountain, I was dropped, I came back to the lead group, then I crashed on the descent, then jumped back on, and caught up like 400 metres before the finish, and I sprinted and was like seventh. I was strong that day but luck was totally not on my side."
Navardauskas is looking to reverse the fortunes of this season and once again prove his worth, both to himself, and to his new colleagues - "I hope I won't disappoint them."
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