Ramunas Navardauskas gave Lithuania and his American team a stage victory Friday at the Tour de France. Now cycling's great showcase is reduced to this — the race for second place behind Vincenzo Nibali.
The Italian, who has all but won the yellow jersey, cruised to the finish in Stage 19 in the rain-splattered pack behind the Lithuanian's breakaway. Only a mishap of the highest order during Saturday's time trial would deny Nibali victory in Paris on Sunday.
With cool and methodical racing, Nibali has bit by bit built a lead of more than seven minutes on his closest rivals, and much more against many others. Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde are vying for second and third.
The showdown comes down to Saturday's 54-kilometer (33.5-mile) race against the clock from Bergerac to Perigueux. Relatively long by Tour standards, the time trial will require riders to maintain a steady rhythm and face the wind or rain on their own without the protection of the pack.
Only 15 seconds separate the three riders behind Nibali. Pinot trails the leader by 7 minutes, 10 seconds. Peraud is 7:23 back, with Valverde two seconds slower. Pinot is considered the least skilled among the three in time trials.
"Tomorrow is the most important stage of the Tour," Pinot said. "I'll have to be strong."
Next in the standings is France's Romain Bardet, a teammate of Peraud's on the AG2R La Mondiale team. But he's more than two minutes behind Valverde and not considered strong in time trials. American Tejay van Garderen is regarded as strong, but he's another two minutes slower in sixth place — and erasing his four-minute deficit to join the podium contenders would be no small feat.
In reverse order of the standings, riders on Saturday set off one by one down the starter's ramp at several-minute intervals over more than six hours. Cheng Ji of Giant-Shimano, the first rider from China in the race, will go first. Nibali goes last.
The not-quite flat and long course will require riders to muster all the strength they have left in legs that have suffered, strained and burned over three weeks — a trek that began in the hills and dales of Yorkshire, England, covered coarse cobblestones and ascended several mountain peaks.
"There's no real danger, it's not too technical — it's really power that will matter," race director Thierry Gouvenou said, referring to the time trial. "There's just a little climb at the end, but after you've covered the Alps and the Pyrenees, it's really a little climb."
Three-time world time-trial champion Tony Martin of Germany is perhaps the favorite to win the stage, Gouvenou said, but "when you reach this part of the Tour de France, it's really a question of freshness and what you have left in the tank."
Just as Italy is eager for its first Tour winner since Marco Pantani in 1998, many French fans are ebullient at the prospect that the first rider from the race's homeland will reach the podium for the first time since Richard Virenque in 1997.
Those two success stories, however, came at the height of cycling's doping scandal. Both riders were later sanctioned in connection with banned performance enhancers. Since then, with a crackdown on drugs cheats in place, the peloton has cleaned up considerably.
Navardauskas rides for the Garmin-Sharp team, which has been among the most outspoken against doping. He led a late breakaway in a downpour to win the 208.5-kilometer (129.5-mile) stage from Maubourguet to Bergerac. He looked over his shoulder, kissed his fingers and raised his arms in victory, with the pack barreling in behind him seven seconds later.
He became the first Lithuanian to win an individual stage in the Tour. In 2011, he was on the Garmin-Cervelo squad that won the team time trial at the Tour that year. He also won a stage in last year's Italian Giro.
This victory by Garmin-Sharp — its first on this Tour — was a team effort. First, Dutch rider Tom-Jelte Slagter joined a five-man breakaway early on, then sped ahead alone. Alex Howes of the U.S. helped pull the Lithuanian up front before Navardauskas went solo with about 13 kilometers (8 miles) left.
"I gave it all. My teammates worked really hard for me," Navardauskas said. "I took a risk — you have to try — and it worked."
The performance eased some of the sting Garmin-Sharp has felt on the Tour. First, team leader Andrew Talansky of the U.S. pulled out before Stage 12, the pain from crashes proving too much. Three stages later, New Zealand's Jack Bauer cried at the finish line. He had looked over his shoulder in the last several seconds only to see the pack deprive him of a long-breakaway victory with just meters to go.
"I was just hoping that it would not happen the same way as Jack. To the last 10 meters, I was afraid to turn back," Navardauskas said. "I had no idea what was happening behind me."
In the last few kilometers, about a dozen riders crashed together while trying to turn on the rain-slickened roads. Among them were Slovakia's Peter Sagan, who has the green jersey given to the race's best sprinter, and Bardet, who is fifth overall.
Peraud briefly got delayed. But that didn't dent his hopes for a top-three finish. Under course rules, because the crash happened in the last 3 kilometers (2 miles), nobody who got ensnared in it lost time in the title chase.
That makes for a close contest Saturday.
"I'm looking for the second place as I'm only a few seconds behind Peraud and Pinot," said Valverde, the Spanish time-trial champion. "It's going to be a great fight. I think Peraud is a better specialist than Pinot. Well' see."