Young Toms Skujins (Hincapie Racing) likely started Tuesday’s Amgen Tour of California stage with some degree of anonymity.
But with a stunning solo victory at the end of a 105.5-mile race around San Jose, the former Latvian under-23 champion is now the most visible rider in the race, wearing the yellow leader’s jersey.
“This is big,” Skujins said. “I dunno, it’s pretty massive for us. Last year Robin [Carpenter] won in Colorado. … This year we made it happen.
“This was not planned at all. I knew that a breakaway had a chance today.
“The last half an hour was pure pain.”
He now leads the overall by 32 seconds ahead of Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), with Rob Britton (Team SmartStop) third, 43 seconds back.
A number of riders tried to make the early move, and at one point, an unwieldy, large group was up the road.
Eventually, seven riders rode clear of the peloton: Skujins, Roy Curvers (Giant-Alpecin), Travis Meyer (Drapac), Oscar Clark (Hincapie Racing), Jonathan Clarke (UnitedHealthcare), Daniel Oss (BMC), and Evan Huffman (Team SmartStop).
Coming into the day’s third categorized climb, the break had a 4:30 lead.
The group of seven began to pull apart on the day’s big climb, a category 1 ascent of Mount Hamilton. Soon, only Huffman, Oss, Clarke, and Skujins remained at the front.
Skujins made his move early on the big climb and rode away, alone, eventually amassing a lead of about 1:30.
Behind the Latvian, the chase trio dropped into the descent with approximately two minutes lead over the peloton, which was being paced by Team Sky.
Huffman seemed uncomfortable on the fast descent and was soon dropped.
With 20 miles to go, Skujins was two minutes ahead of Oss and Clarke; Huffman was next on the road, three minutes back, and the peloton was four minutes in arrears.
The 23-year-old leader rode like a man possessed, especially on the descents, which even led to a minor crash on the descent off Quimby. But he reaped the rewards of those risks, stretching his lead to 3:05.
On the same corner that gave the leader trouble, Clarke went off the road and lost touch with Oss.
Huffman also struggled on the descent, requiring a wheel change and losing his advantage over the field, which was 4:45 behind Skujins with 13 miles to race.
Skujins would not relent, holding a lead of more than four minutes with 10 miles left. Oss and Clarke continued to chase, but not together.
Soon, Clarke was caught by the peloton. Oss was next to return to the bunch.
Attacks began to fly in the peloton with eight miles left to race. Lawson Craddock (Giant-Alpecin) kicked off the hostilities, stretching the field and disrupting the chase.
With two miles left, Skujins was ahead by 2:25, driving away to the day’s final climb up Metcalf Road to the finish.
Another attack came from the peloton with one mile left. Laurent Didier (Trek Factory Racing) went off the front alone, inciting more action in the peloton, but Skujins was gone.
“In the headwinds, I was just dying,” said Skujins. “It’s easier to win solo. Because then you don’t have to sprint and I had nothing left.”
He suffered through the headwind and a final, steep kicker to celebrate victory alone in San Jose.
Behind, Sagan collected another second-place finish, and Etixx-Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe rode in for third.
“We pulled very hard to bring back the last rider of the breakaway [Skujins],” said Sagan. “Unfortunately, Skujins proved to be very strong and was able to hold on for more than 50km. I did my best and, most importantly, I feel good. The focus is now on the following stages.”
Wednesday’s 107.6-mile stage from Pismo Beach to Avila Beach has another fairly significant climb on offer, but it comes midway through the stage, and a long run-in to the end will likely favor a sprint finish.