At the age of 35, the newly crowned road champion of Lithuania Ignatas Konovalovas was thrilled to be selected by the Groupama-FDJ team for his third Tour de France. His role at the Tour would be leading the sprint train for his team leader Arnaud Démare through the final kilometers of road stages in the French sprinter’s bid for stage wins and the green jersey. But his dreams of helping Démare win multiple times—as he did at last fall’s Giro d’Italia—were suddenly dashed 8 kilometers from the end of stage 1 when Konovalovas was one of the unlucky members of the peloton brought down in the day’s second mass pileup. The Lithuanian collided with a spectator and was knocked out before being taken to a hospital with a brain hemorrhage.
That crash could also signal the end of Konovalovas’ career. He is in his 14th season of pro racing and only got a one-year extension to his contract at the end of 2020. A bad back injury that ended his 2019 Giro was still affecting him last year at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and he needed to prove that he was healthy before the end of the season. “From our first race back, I felt things were going better, but Milan–San Remo was the race that really gave me peace of mind,” he said in an interview with Groupama-FDJ last winter. “I did 300 kilometers and seven hours on the bike. And I felt okay afterwards. That’s probably what motivated me for the rest of the season.”
But it was Démare and his teammates who really helped him through that difficult period. “They reassured me over and over again, saying: ’Don’t worry, Kono. Given how you’re performing, there is no way you won’t re-sign.’” At 6-foot-3 and 163 pounds, he’s not designed to be a sprinter; but with half a dozen national time trial titles to his credit and a TT stage of the Giro in his palmarès, Konovalovas can ride strongly at the front of a high-speed peloton whenever he’s asked.
Speaking about his 2020 Giro preparations through the pandemic, he said he enjoyed the slow build-up to the end-of-the-year calendar of races. “I’m a ‘diesel’ kind-of rider and like to prepare the old-fashioned way,” he said. “I don’t have a specific explanation…but I beat the power records I’d set since I joined the team five years ago…. For example, I broke my five-minute-watts record in the Giro. I don’t really have the qualities or the speed for [leading out a sprint]. I rather work up to the last 10, 5 or even 3 kilometers at best.
“I launch the train, put it on the right track, and my job is done. This year, I felt I could ride up to the flamme rouge, even up to the last 800 meters. It was a real change. In the last stage we won [at the Giro], we came from 30th position to the head of the peloton with 2 kilometers to go. I was at the head of the train, and it looked like the peloton was stopped. We were going 5 kph faster than the rest. When you overtake the whole peloton as you approach the flamme rouge with the train behind you, you get goose bumps on your whole body. You feel like you are doing some really important work and you know you are doing it well.
“This 2020 season [when Arnaud won a dozen races]was a great story, but a new one will begin in 2021. We will have to stay motivated and not think that the work is already done.” Before this Tour de France, Konovalovas had already helped Démare win another seven sprints and he was excited to be helping the Frenchman win again in the upcoming three weeks. That dream is now over but hopefully the tall man from Lithuania will be back in the saddle for more adventures. “In my head, I always had the willingness to stay with the pros,” he said about his comeback from another serious injury.
The latest Lost Boys
Three riders were forced to abandon the race on stage 1: Konovalovas; Frenchman Cyril Lemoine, the road captain of B&B Hotels-KTM (four broken ribs, a bad cut behind the right ear and a collapsed lung); and German Jasha Sütterlin, a workhorse for Team DSM (severe contusion of his right wrist). Spaniard Marc Soler, one of the Movistar Team’s top climbers, could not start stage 2 after bravely finishing stage 1 (with two fractured elbows). As a result, the Tour’s starting field of 184 has been reduced to 180 riders.