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LAGUNA SECA, California (VN) — On May 15, 2017, Toms Skujins crashed while descending toward San Jose and sustained a major head injury that left him stumbling in the middle of the road as the Amgen Tour of California’s peloton sped by.
On May 15, 2018, Skujins danced his way through a victory celebration at Laguna Seca to claim stage 3 of the Tour of California, his third career stage win in the American WorldTour race.
What a difference a year makes.
“It’s brilliant. And it’s not like it’s not my first win back since the crash, which is even more surprising,” Skujins said after Tuesday’s victory. “I wouldn’t have believed it if someone said I would do it last year.”
Skujins powered to the stage 3 win using similar tactics to those he’s used in the past, breaking clear of the pack on a lumpy parcours and narrowly holding off chasers to snatch the victory.
The 26-year-old from Latvia has carved out a niche as one of the fiercest stage hunters on California turf over the last few seasons. Following his breakout ride in 2015, he claimed another breakaway stage victory in 2016 while riding for Cannondale-Drapac.
Last year, however, he had to withdraw from the race after his horror crash in stage 2. Skujins crashed hard on the descent of Mt. Hamilton; he slipped out in a corner and tumbled to the tarmac. His head bounced off the pavement, and Skujins lay on the ground. TV cameras caught him stumbling across the road after the incident, and fans watched in horror as he re-mounted his bicycle and started riding awkwardly down the hill. Eventually Skujins stepped off his bike and climbed into a team car.
The crash was terrifying for viewers. It was scary for Skujins too.
Skujins took his recovery from the head injury seriously. He spent weeks out of competition before returning to racing and building his way back into form. He made his first career grand tour start in August at the Vuelta a España. He then signed with Trek-Segafredo for the 2018 season.
It didn’t take him long to snatch a win for his new team. Eight months after his concussion, he nabbed a UCI 1.1 victory in the second day of the Mallorca Challenge.
Given his past results in California, a healthy and in-form Skujins was an obvious option for Trek on Tuesday’s lumpy stage 3. The 197-kilometer route from King City to Laguna Seca was perhaps the one day in this year’s Tour of California that was not tailored to the pure sprinters, climbers, or time trialists.
Trek sport director Alain Gallopin said after the stage that the team had a detailed plan in mind, with Kiel Reijnen as an option for a reduced sprint and Skujins as the man to try for a break on a climb some 30km from the finish.
“When [Lawson] Craddock attacked on the second-category [East Carmel Valley Road] climb, I told [Skujins] it was too early,” Gallopin said. “It’s too much between the two climbs. You see the peloton slow down on the climbs, but the peloton always gets faster on the flats and the downhills.”
Skujins waited for his moment to strike and then surged up to the survivors of the early break. Then he left them behind on the up-and-down run-in to the finale. He was ultimately joined off the front by Hagens Berman Axeon’s Sean Bennett, but Skujins proved stronger going up and over the last ramp and onto the Laguna Seca motor circuit.
His well-rounded skillset always serves Skujins well on profiles like Tuesday’s. Having plenty of experience in California helps too.
Skujins has raced for U.S.-based squads dating back to 2014, his first season with Hincapie Racing (now Holowesko-Citadel). Sporting so many American sponsors on his kit over the last several years, Skujins has made the start in California every year since 2015.
His new team’s American title sponsor has plenty of reason to be pleased with Skujins’s arrival for the 2018 season. Before Tuesday, Trek hadn’t enjoyed a Tour of California stage win for quite some time.
“The last one who won was Jens Voigt,” said Gallopin. “It’s not every year you have a Jens Voigt in the team.”
Like Voigt, Skujins sure seems to enjoy racing on American soil.
Gallopin said Skujins’s strong start to the season has put him in the running for a Tour de France roster selection, and that Trek considered changing his program in the run-up to the sport’s main event this July — but Skujins insisted on racing California.
One need look no further than his palmares to see just how much motivation Skujins draws from racing on the West Coast.
“Toms spends a lot of time in the USA. His girlfriend is from the USA. So for him it’s a bit of a home race,” Reijnen said. “All of the Americans, we have a little extra mojo for this race. Even though he isn’t an American, Toms falls in that category.”
Listen to an interview with Skujins on the VeloNews podcast (at 30:00)