Not many consider Estonia a hotbed of cycling talent, but the country’s most famous cyclist also holds one of the most underrated Tour records. While most remember Jaan Kirsipuu for his 4 Tour stage wins, or his 6 days in yellow in 1999, the former Estonian champion is also known for one more impressive Tour accomplishment: dropping out (consistently). It’s true: Kirsipuu abandoned the Tour on 13 consecutive occasions, setting a record that no one wants to match.
All kidding aside, Kirsipuu is about to be overshadowed by a potential Tour contender in Cofidis’ Rein Taaramäe. While Taaramäe’s goal of a top-10 in Paris may come as a surprise to many, his progress and results over the past few years put him on track to be a grand tour star. Taaramäe won a stage of Tour de l’Avenir in 2008 and has finished in the top-10 at the Tour de Romandie, Tour de Suisse, Volta a Catalunya, Paris–Nice and the Critérium International, just to name a few.
This year, Taaramäe took the youth classification at both the Critérium International (3rd overall) and Paris-Nice (4th overall). Needless to say, he’s seems ready, willing, and capable of a top-10 at this year’s Tour de France. TThat said, the young Estonian failed to finish the Tour last year and his Cofidis team is relatively weak–at least in terms of being able to support a legitimate GC rider.
Like Estonia, Lithuania ‘s cycling accomplishments aren’t well known–at least from the men’s side of things. But Lithuania is also home to Rasa Polikevičiūtė, Edita Pučinskaitė and Diana Žiliūtė–all of whom have donned the rainbow stripes as World Champion. At this year’s Tour, Lithuania’s most famous rider, Tomas Vaitkus, will once again take the start line for Astana while neo-pro Rumunas Navardauskas makes his Tour debut as a member of the Garmin-Cervélo squad.
Vaitkus is probably best known for his U23 Time Trial World Championship in 2002. Since then, he’s been a strong rouleur but has found with little success in the grand tours aside from winning Stage 9 of the 2007 Giro d’Italia. In this year’s Tour de France, his best opportunity may be in a breakaway during the second or third week–if he can make it that far.
Garmin’s-Cervelo’s Rumunas Navardauskas has all of Lithuania on his back as he dons his nation’s colors in his first Tour. Despite being a national champion, Navardauskas is a relative unknown. To date, his best results came as a U23 thanks to a victory in the amateur Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a U23 national title in 2007 along with several top finishes in some of Europe’s toughest U23 classics. Needless to say, this will be a very interesting Tour for the young Lithuanian.
Man of the Hour: With a stack of impressive palmarès, and a ton of confidence, Cofidis’ Rein Taaramäe seems to be a solid bet on a top-10. Although he’s not French, he’s been with Cofidis his entire career and will undoubtedly have the support of the home nation’s fans.
On the Hot Seat: With only three riders from Estonia and Lithuania, someone has to be on the hot seat, right? Without a win in 2011, the honor goes to Tomas Vaitkus.
Up-and-Comer: As a first year World Tour professional, Rumunas Navardauskas is by definition an Up-and-Comer. After all, he beat-out Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Van Summeren for the final spot on what is being heralded as Garmin’s strongest ever Tour squad. While he may be used and abused as a workhorse, he’ll have his time to shine–let’s see what happens.