Peter Sagan might have won more stages, and others riders took the race’s overall. But California served as the springboard for the Latvian star to enter the WorldTour.
Skujins, who won three stages during his career at the Tour of California, was as surprised and saddened as anyone when he heard the race has announced a ‘hiatus’ for 2020.
“I hope it doesn’t mean permanently, because it is a really cool race for the U.S. scene,” Skujins told VeloNews. “I am sad it’s gone.”
Skujins, 28, just completed his fourth full season in the WorldTour. His runway into the top league went straight through the Tour of California. The race and his subsequent success would permanently alter his professional trajectory.
Now a fan favorite, Skujins raced two seasons on the Hincapie development team in 2014 and 2015 just as he was trying to find his place in the peloton. Every year, the Tour of California was the centerpiece of the U.S. calendar. Before it moved to the WorldTour status in 2017, California was the high-profile race where young, developing riders like Skujins could get the chance to test themselves against the seasoned pros.
Skujins didn’t waste any time at his shot to impress.
On the third day of his first California start, Skujins won out of a solo breakaway ahead of Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe. It was heady stuff. The race was still “HC” level, which meant UCI Continental teams like Hincapie could line up against the WorldTour-level best.
Skujins’s big win turned heads. That victory helped land him a WorldTour pro contract with Cannondale, where he raced two seasons before joining Trek-Segafredo in 2018.
“It was a super-important race, especially when it was still HC, as it gave the smaller teams in the U.S. a chance to test themselves against the big teams,” Skujins said.
“I was one of the guys who really benefitted from that,” he continued. “I won a stage when I was with the Hincapie team, and that helped me get to the WorldTour.”
Riders and fans alike expressed dismay Tuesday at the sudden withdrawal of California from the racing calendar. Officials said the race would be on a one-year “hiatus” for 2020, leaving the possibility of a return.
No one saw it coming, at least among the tight-knit peloton. Skujins, who is currently in the United States to visit friends and enjoy some down time, said the news was unexpected.
“It was a race I was really looking forward to every year. In fact, we were just talking about California when we saw the news,” he said. “The plan was to do it again next year. I have a lot of great memories from there.”
After joining the WorldTour in 2016, Skujins returned to California and win stage 5 that year. The following year, however, Skujins crashed hard and had to abandon the race, only to return in 2018 and win another stage. His emotional celebration as he rode into the finish—Skujins danced on his bicycle—made headlines around the world.
Skujins still points to his first stage win in 2015 as his brightest moment at the race.
“We had the leader’s jersey and all the team sponsors and backers were there. It was a real highlight for the entire team,” he said. “It was great being one of the smaller teams and sticking it to the big guys.”
Now that he is one of the “big guys,” Skujins said California will be a hard race to replace. It came on a good spot on the calendar, and the race unfolded in a unique pace and rhythm that made it one of the most popular races among the peloton.
“The WorldTour riders really enjoyed it because the U.S. roads are a bit bigger,” he said. “There was none of that stress like in Europe, when you need to be at the front all the time. It made the atmosphere a bit nicer for the riders in the race.
“It leaves a big hole in U.S. racing and in the entire the calendar,” he continued. “For a lot of guys, it was the first race back after doing the spring classics. It was a nice way to transition into the rest of the season. I don’t how the U.S. scene will shape up next year. Maybe that hole on the calendar doesn’t get filled.”