When Ramūnas Navardauskas crossed the line seven seconds ahead of John Degenkolb and the rest of the pack to win stage 19 of the Tour de France in Bergerac, it would be easy to presume that the victory was solely his.
After all, it was Navardauskas who sprinted away from the bunch at the top of the day’s only climb, the Côte de Monbazillac, Navardauskas who stretched his advantage out over 20 seconds in the race’s critical moments, Navardauskas who managed to avoid a crash despite pouring rain and, finally, Navardauskas who threw up a two-armed salute 208.5 km and nearly five hours after the day’s racing began as he became the first Lithuanian ever to win a stage at the Tour.
But while Navardauskas finished alone, he could not have won on his own. Rather, his victory was the product of an impressive collective effort from his Garmin-Sharp squad. The American team executed its strategy for stage victory to perfection and earned a measure of success in this Tour after their leader, Andrew Talansky, who withdrew from the race prior to stage 12.
In phase one of the plan, Tom-Jelte Slagter joined an early escape that fluctuated in size before settling at five riders for much of the stage. With about 20 miles remaining, Slagter struck out on his own, and stayed out in front as his four breakaway companions were reeled in by the peloton.
Once Slagter came back into view of the pack on the run-up to the Monbazillac, Navardauskas sprang clear and closed down the gap to his teammate. Slagter went over the top first but almost immediately gave way to the 26-year-old, who built a small gap over the pack as he swept over the wet road. Behind him, Jack Bauer, another Garmin-Sharp rider, disrupted the chase by riding to the front of main field, slowing, then repeating the process all over again.
Of all the Garmin riders, Bauer knew better than anyone just how difficult it would be for Navardauskas to stay away. On Sunday, the New Zealander engineered a two-man breakaway with Martin Elmiger that lasted over 200 km, only for the pair to be caught about 25 meters from the finish line. Bauer got off his bike in tears and called the result, “a bitter disappointment.”
With the miles toward the finish ticking down, it looked like Navardauskas might suffer the same fate. But a crash near the front of the pack took down several riders, including points leader Peter Sagan, and delayed scores more. The chase continued, but the hesitation the pileup had caused gave Navardauskas the bit of luck he needed to clinch the win, just like the team had drawn it up. “That was the plan all along,” said Garmin’s Ben King. “Ramūnas just has such a big engine.”
Race leader Vincenzo Nibali was among those delayed by the crash, a cohort that also included Alejandro Valverde, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet. All were given the same time since the spill took place less than three kilometers from the finish, and the top 10 overall remained unchanged ahead of the Tour’s penultimate stage tomorrow, a 54 km individual time trial from Bergerac to Périgueux.
For Navardauskas, tomorrow’s race against the clock may feel like déjà vu. “I used all my power to ride like a time trialist till the end,” said Navardauskas.