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Race on for 2nd with time trial

– 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 today’s time trial would deny Nibali victory in Paris on Sunday.

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 today’s 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 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 today 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.

“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.”

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 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.

This victory by Garmin-Sharp was a team effort. First, Dutch rider Tom-Jelte Slagter joined a five-man breakaway, then sped ahead alone. Alex Howes of the U.S. helped pull the Lithuanian up front before Navardauskas went solo with about 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.”

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