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I scan through a list of Toms Skujins’s races and results, somewhat mystified. He’s 25 and has two stage wins at the Amgen Tour of California. He rides well on cobbles and in the Ardennes, in good weather and bad, big races and small. Where’s the unifying thread? What type of rider is he? It’s tough to say.
“So tell me what you are,” I say to him.
“Nobody seems to know,” he says. “That’s why the team sent me all around.”
Toms is funny. At an Amgen Tour of California press conference this year he and a relaxed Taylor Phinney (this modifier is redundant, honestly) had the press corps in stitches. To be funny in a foreign language — Skujins, pronounced sort of like Skoinsh but not really, is Latvian — is doubly impressive.
Almost as impressive as the young Cannondale – Drapac rider’s victorious sprint into South Lake Tahoe in California in May, his second ATOC breakaway stage win in as many years, or the fact that he finished with the big main group at the Tour of Flanders after crashing and destroying his shoe, requiring him to pull a spare out of the team car and perform the dreaded mid-Ronde footwear swap. “I blasted through groups after that but hit the Kwaremont and, ‘boom,’ which was always going to happen,” he says, quite matter-of-fact.
Skujins was handed a diverse, somewhat incongruous racing calendar in 2016 and excelled anyway. Few race the cobbled classics then hop straight into the Ardennes then make a real run at California. He capped his successful spring with a trip to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics and to the Tour of Alberta for the weather (“I like it cold,” he says) and to the Grand Prix in Montreal, a tough race where he finished 22nd.
He’s an impressive rider and a versatile one. No surprise that his directors had him try a bit of everything this season, just to see what stuck.
“I’m always up for a challenge,” he says. “I would have loved to do more stage racing, I had success there.” That was the one thing that was missing from his rookie WorldTour season: a grand tour start.
Skujins’s victory in California, one of two for Cannondale that week, was one of the highlights of a season that Cannondale – Drapac probably hopes we’ll all just forget about. The team did have Andrew Talansky’s run at the Vuelta and Pierre Rolland’s heroic, embattled Tour de France, but victory was elusive. When a team time trial win at the Czech Cycling Tour ends up on the results sheet, it wasn’t a great year.
Skujins is, in many ways, a good indicator of things to come. He is young and brash and so green that his directors are still doing experiments on him. And he embodies something about the spirit of this quirky team. “We’re not traditional cyclists,” he says. “There are some characters on the team. And a guy from Latvia, which has two million people total, won’t be a traditional bike rider. I’m not a traditional bike rider.
“Yeah, maybe we didn’t have the best season. But at the same time, we were always there, and you have to work for luck. If you don’t have luck you can’t win bike races. And we still had solid results throughout the year, finished grand tours in the top six, and in the classics. I mean, we finished ninth in the UCI WorldTour, so I can’t say we had a terrible season.”
Next year, Skujins wants to the race the classics, then head to the Giro d’Italia. After a short break, he has his eye on the Tour of Britain. “It’s hilly, hard, has bad weather, and only teams of six,” Skujins says. “That makes for exciting racing, attacking racing.”
His eyes light up a little as he talks about it. He likes unpredictable racing, hard racing. Racing where he can use that intellect that makes him funny in English as much as Latvian.
Oh, I know what Toms Skujins is now. It’s obvious: The pair of breakaway stage wins at ATOC, both perfectly executed; his Flanders effort, despite the shoe; a top 40 at Liège, a rarity for a first-year pro. He’s an archetypal chaos-monger. A breakaway artist, to use the well-worn cliché, who excels when things get a bit hairy.
I put my theory before him. He seems to agree.
“There’s some order in chaos,” he says, grinning. “If you look for it.”