Italy has been a happy hunting ground for Ramūnas Navardauskas. Cannondale's 28-year-old Lithuanian wore the maglia rosa for two days in 2012 when Garmin–Barracuda won the team time trial before going on to put Ryder Hesjedal on the top step of the podium in Milan, and the following year he grabbed an audacious solo win on Stage 11.
That day, Navardauskas finished over a minute ahead of his breakaway companion Daniel Oss, after the pair had launched a counter attack with Ag2r–La Mondiale's Guillaume Bonnafond to catch Patrick Gretsch, who'd gone solo early on.
Bonnafond's contribution was short-lived, and after Gretsch cracked before the final climb, Navardauskas put his BMC rival to the sword with some brutal accelerations before snapping the elastic and shooting off to win his first Grand Tour stage comfortably.
The 99th edition of the Corsa Rosa hasn't been quite so joyful for the tall all-rounder with the curious nickname of Honey Badger, but the team's struggles – “twisty” is the adjective he uses to describe the team's Giro – aren't stopping him from smiling.
When we meet at his team hotel on the Giro's third rest day, he arrives in the lobby to greet us sporting a big grin, and then opens with a massive understatement.
“At a Grand Tour, sometimes you just feel really tired. You might feel okay and then try to walk up some stairs and think, 'Ooh, really? That hurt’. It can be a strange feeling. But I think I'm doing okay. I didn't need to give all my energy in the mountains, I'm not super-tired, so I think I'm managing myself ok.”
Cannondale's race hasn't gone to plan this May, with fatigue and an illness within the team derailing Rigoberto Uran's hopes of going one better than 2014, when he finished second.
“Every year is different. Some stages suit you better, sometimes it's just a little bit too hard, and it depends on your health. A few of the guys in the team have been sick this year – I'm one of them, so like that you're not in the best shape. But you just keep your head up and see where it goes. I'm still motivated. Now, it's the last week, what is there to lose?
“You're a little bit angry,” he laughs, when asked how hard it is to pull yourself out of bed to start a big race when you're under the weather. “You always feel fatigue in a Grand Tour, sick or healthy, and you always feel like the guy next to you is feeling better. When you're sick, you think he's making you hurt on purpose just because he's feeling healthy, that it's not fair, that he should be sick as well!
“It's a big thing in Grand Tours. You need to be super careful, but sometimes it just comes from nowhere. Some riders won't even shake hands with people, because you don't know who they are, where their hands have been, and you can get sick so easily because your body is so tired and doesn't fight infections well.
“You can get sick from anything. A few years ago in the Giro, I got allergies from nowhere – I'd never had them in my life but all of a sudden I had allergies. So when you come to a Grand Tour, you need to be prepared for anything. It's hard, but it's not only me who got sick and some riders have to go home when I'm still here, so it's okay.”
Basketball is the national sport in Lithuania, but Navardauskas' performances on the bike have gotten him plenty of attention in his homeland and, you'd think, contributed in some way to the surge in popularity that cycling is currently seeing in the Baltics. He was, after all, third place at the 2015 Worlds, on the podium with Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews.
“2012 and ’13 at the Giro were both great years for me. I was the first Lithuanian to wear the pink jersey, which made me really happy, and ’13 was the first Grand Tour stage win, so it was another big year.
“After the podium in Richmond…” There's a smile and a pause. “I'm actually the kind of guy who likes to be off to the side, I don't really like the attention. I try to stay away from it. But after the Worlds, I couldn't. I got a lot of attention in Lithuania, which actually made me really happy, but it took some energy too.
“Those couple of weeks at the end of the season when you just want to keep to yourself and rest, I didn't have that, there were always meetings and people around, but I enjoyed it, the attention. Maybe after such a long season, I just wanted a couple of extra weeks for myself!
“Cycling in Lithuania, or in Eastern Europe, is different from the West. It's not like in other countries where you get a bike from your parents and you pedal. You get the bike from the federation – it's not the best bike – for free and if you're lucky, you get better things from the coach – wheels, pedals, clothing – to keep you motivated.
“Coaches are always looking for kids who want to start, around ten or 11. In the winter there's a lot of snow, so you can't ride, so you do other sports. It's super simple, nothing special, but if you get some results you start to specialise and go abroad to bigger races.
“I went away from home for the first time when I was 14, maybe even younger, for three weeks, to Poland. I don't even remember the city! Close to Jelenia Góra, I think. That was long for me. We went back the next year, then to Hungary for two years in a row, then Croatia… Since I was 12 I've been travelling more and more, and when I was 18, I spent most of my time in Switzerland [he joined the UCI’s development programme in 2006].
“You get used to it. When you have friends and nice people around you in the team, you don't feel homesick.”