Not many consider Estonia a hotbed of cycling talent, but the countryâ€™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). Itâ€™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 Cofidisâ€™ Rein TaaramÃ¤e. While TaaramÃ¤eâ€™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. TaaramÃ¤e 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, Parisâ€“Nice and the CritÃ©rium International, just to name a few.
This year, TaaramÃ¤e took the youth classification at both the CritÃ©rium International (3rd overall) and Paris-Nice (4th overall). Needless to say, heâ€™s seems ready, willing, and capable of a top-10 at this yearâ€™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 â€˜s cycling accomplishments arenâ€™t well known–at least from the menâ€™s side of things. But Lithuania is also home to Rasa PolikeviÄiÅ«tÄ—, Edita PuÄinskaitÄ— and Diana Å½iliÅ«tÄ—–all of whom have donned the rainbow stripes as World Champion. At this yearâ€™s Tour, Lithuaniaâ€™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-CervÃ©lo squad.
Vaitkus is probably best known for his U23 Time Trial World Championship in 2002. Since then, heâ€™s been a strong rouleur but has found with little success in the grand tours aside from winning Stage 9 of the 2007 Giro dâ€™Italia. In this yearâ€™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.
Garminâ€™s-Cerveloâ€™s Rumunas Navardauskas has all of Lithuania on his back as he dons his nationâ€™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 LiÃ¨ge-Bastogne-LiÃ¨ge and a U23 national title in 2007 along with several top finishes in some of Europeâ€™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 palmarÃ¨s, and a ton of confidence, Cofidisâ€™ Rein TaaramÃ¤e seems to be a solid bet on a top-10. Although heâ€™s not French, heâ€™s been with Cofidis his entire career and will undoubtedly have the support of the home nationâ€™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 Garminâ€™s strongest ever Tour squad. While he may be used and abused as a workhorse, heâ€™ll have his time to shine–letâ€™s see what happens.