Meet your Amgen Tour race leader, Latvian Toms Skujins

The 23-year-old Latvian is all but guaranteed a spot on a WorldTour team after taking a stage win at one of the most important races in North America

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PISMO BEACH, California (VN) — It would be hard to fault race fans for collectively asking the same question on Tuesday after stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California: who is Toms Skujins?

But following his stage win, and his run in the race leader’s jersey — which is expected to extend to three days on Friday — it’s a question that won’t likely be asked much longer, even if American fans have a hard time pronouncing his last name (it’s pronounced “Skoinch” — imagine the word “coins” with an “s” in front of it, you’re almost there.)

The 23-year-old Latvian, who rides for Hincapie Racing and resides in Greenville, South Carolina, is all but guaranteed a spot on a WorldTour team in 2016 after taking a stage win at one of the most important races in North America — and particularly in the manner in which he did it.

After making the stage 3 escape — no easy task, as it took over 90 minutes of frenetic racing at the start of the day — Skujins rode away from his breakaway companions on the climb of Mount Hamilton, gapping off BMC’s Daniel Oss, who had been hunting KOM points. Over the top of Hamilton, Skujins held a lead of 1:35 over the chase group, and four minutes over the peloton.

And though Skujins had some difficulty on the descent of Hamilton, nearly crashing once, and running off the road and into a hay bale on another occasion, the Hincapie rider actually opened his gap over Oss on the descent.

Even with Tinkoff-Saxo and Sky chasing behind, after 55 hilly kilometers spent riding alone, the Latvian rider crossed the finish line alone with time to celebrate, 1:06 ahead of Peter Sagan. It was an impressive display of climbing, descending, determination, and courage. The win brought the race lead, and thrust the young rider into the spotlight.

Asked of his emotions in that moment, Skujins said that, more than anything, he was just happy to finally stop pedaling. “I was so drained of energy I couldn’t believe it,” he told VeloNews. “The last 2km were just insufferable. I was having shortness of breath. I was really out of energy, I was so glad to stop finally.”

To those who have been watching closely, however, the bigger surprise is that Skujins did not receive a pro contract heading into the 2015 season. In 2014, while riding for Hincapie, he won two stages, and the overall, at the Tour de Beauce, the Canadian 2.2 stage race held in June.

Yet when asked of his best results, Skujins didn’t mention Beauce, instead citing (in order) a fifth place at the 2013 U23 world road championship in Florence, third at the 2013 U23 European road championship, and his overall win at the 2013 Course de la Paix (Peace Race), part of the UCI Nations’ Cup. Beauce came next.

He also placed second at the 2011 U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen, raising the question: what sort of rider will this 5-foot-10, 154-pound Latvian powerhouse develop into?

“I like the hilly classics, but I like the cobbled classics as well,” he told VeloNews. “I’m still trying to figure out where I am. I think my recovery is good enough to be a GC rider, but I’m still pretty young, so I just need that strength for the GC, really. So for now I’m just focusing on stages, and if I’m there in the GC, after a couple of stages, yeah, then I’ll go for it.”

Asked about his time-trial skills, Skujins laughed, saying, “It depends on where I am with GC. If I’m high up on GC, I can do well. Sometimes … not as good.”

Skujins rode for the French development team La Pomme Marseille in 2011 and 2012, and for the Latvian Continental team Rietumu-Delfin in 2013. Hincapie Racing team manager Thomas Craven brought Skujins aboard for the 2014 season at the recommendation of Axeon team soigneur Reed McCalvin.

“I rang [Skujins] up, we talked over Skype, he spoke perfect English and seemed like a personable kid, and an opportunity arose after the U23 worlds where he was fifth and nobody picked him up,” Craven said. “A lot of teams weren’t hiring kids, and he was left out in cold, so I said come on out to the U.S., let’s see how you do. He came over last year, and just looking at him on his bike, his leg speed, his position, the way he carries himself, it’s clear he’s a pro bike racer.

“All spring [of 2014] he wasn’t that good, he was just getting used to the racing in the U.S., and the big roads at races like Redlands, but once we got to Philadelphia, and once the roads got tighter, he started to shine. And then at the Tour de Beauce, when we got into some nastier weather, and skinnier roads, races that are more European, he really began to shine. The harder the race, the better he goes. He has an innate ability to fight for position.”

Craven describes his young rider as, above all else, a hardman.

“He’s had some incredible results,” Craven said. “He’s skinny, like a climber, but he has this massive power, and he seems to have the ability to put it out forever. He was second at U23 Flanders, and he won the Peace Race, those are hardman races. He’s built for that stuff. He’s an incredible bike handler — he’s doing wheelies all over the pace — and with his strength and bike-handling skills, every race he does well in, the longer and harder it is, the more he’s going to shine. He loves being dirty, he loves being wet, he loves being cold — he shines when it gets cold. When it’s raining, and everyone else is trying to hide under doorways, he’s out riding around, giggling.”

And as it was for Craven last year, when Hincapie rider Joey Rosskopf graduated from the program onto BMC Racing, the veteran manager realizes that soon he’ll see his Latvian hardman move onto a WorldTour squad.

Skujins acknowledges that he will likely cede his race lead on Mt. Baldy, if not sooner — assuming a stage 6 time trial is held, somewhere. “For sure I will do my best on Baldy. I haven’t seen it, I have heard only … legends. I have seen some videos from previous years. It looks hard … it’ll be fun.”

Asked about his ambitions to test himself at the WorldTour level, Skujins just smiled. “Every year that’s my ambition, but it hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “I’m still hoping.”

Skujins is clearly a rider with determination, but some things, it seems, are a certainty. He may not win the Amgen Tour this year, but a WorldTour contract … it’s as certain as a Latvian pulling wheelies in the rain, all with a smile on his face.

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