Browsing 25 year-old Latvian Toms Skujins’ results throughout his professional career to date, the viewer is treated to a pleasingly steady upward trajectory. From the early days at La Pomme Marseilles (now Team Delko Marseilles Provence), whose leap to Conti status was garnered via a co-operation with the Latvian cycling federation in 2011, through to a solid debut season (the icing on the cake delivered via a repeat performance of a stage win at the Amgen Tour of California) with the argyle-clad Cannondale Drapac Pro Cycling team. Always Riding caught up with the likeable young pro for a photo-call during a day in the sun on the bike and at the markets of Girona, his new-found home, and again once he’d drawn the curtain on his 2016 season in his native Latvia for a chat as he settled into a winter with an eye firmly fixed on further progress with the green-machine in 2017.
Always Riding: Ok, first things first: Name Pronunciation! Do I say ‘Sku-yins’ or ‘Skudgins’? My Latvian is a little out of practice, you see…
Toms Skujins: Oh, you'll have to make a call for this one. If there's one thing I don't know how to do is explain how to pronounce my last name in a written word format for your readers. I did have someone else suggest it's like S-coin-sh. Which is fairly close.
AR: Hmm – I’ll stick with Toms to be on the safe side. Talk us through your early days and the Latvian scene as it isn’t something we hear much of in the cycling press. How did cycling come about for you? Influences?
TS: I started out mountain biking actually. I actually didn't watch much cycling when I started: I got into it just for the love of riding a bike, so never really had guys I've dreamt of being like - which is kinda good, if you know what I mean. My sisters’ boyfriend at the time took me to my first race and then a friend from my town was already training in a club, so soon after I joined in. As there's not a tonne of road races in Latvia - neither are there too many good roads - everyone keeps doing MTB races as young riders, so I kept doing that and still do. This year I did European Champs in MTB Marathon and got 8th. Not bad for a roadie, huh!
AR: You progressed on the road though and got to ride with the legendary French ‘feeder’ team, La Pomme Marseilles, for 2 years: A lot of great riders have come through that team (Dan Martin is perhaps the leading alumnus - Ed), what is the philosophy at La Pomme Marseilles? Was it Sink or Swim in the tough French race circuit or was there a carefully structured development ethos?
TS: It was a more of a sink or swim philosophy. And I did both. I had good results in the first year and then a pretty bad second year, so they let me go. Which was really good for me. I was too young for it and racing UCI .1 level races every weekend when you're 19/20 is super hard. So I went back to Latvia to ride for a Conti level team there and focus on Nation Cups and international races.
Also I bet you can find some guys that have done the same thing as me at LPM - ride, leave and then make it to the WorldTour. It's a great race program and if you're strong and can handle it you've got the opportunities there to show yourself - but I couldn't say that they nurture guys. I still had fun and am super glad I went there and had that experience!
I started out mountain biking actually. I actually didn't watch much cycling when I started: I got into it just for the love of riding a bike
AR: What were the key lessons for you in that first year in France?
TS: I learnt to be pretty independent and the racing experience I got in those two years made me one of the most knowledgeable riders in my age group and has helped me develop a lot. I also learnt how to take care of myself and learnt French which is super useful in cycling and actually in a human life too.
AR: Was that your first time away from home?
TS: I'd been away from home on training camps a lot since being a Junior. As the training in the Latvian winter is pretty bad, we'd go to camps for months at a time, so I was kind of used to it. But it was the first time I had to deal with finding a place on my own, actually not having my mates around. I think I dealt with it pretty good and it wasn't like I didn't have contact with Latvia and I'd always go back at least in June for nationals.
AR: After La Pomme Marseilles it was back to Latvia with Rietumu Delfin for a year: What was behind that decision? Homesickness, perhaps? A wish to support a local squad?
TS: I actually just didn't have any place else to go! La Pomme didn't want me back and no other teams were interested either…
AR: But, with hindsight I guess, despite getting dropped by La Pomme Marseilles, 2013 with Rietumu-Delfin could now be seen as a ‘breakthrough’ year in many ways: You had a great showing in Tour de L’Avenir in 2013 and lots of good placings in youth classifications at races, leading to a place on the Hincapie development project, a major stepping stone to WorldTour. What where your key moments and developments in 2013?
TS: As I said I really focused on the Nations Cup races and just any international race I did in 2013. I was always the team leader and could show what I'm capable of. I have to thank both the Rietumu boys from 2013 and the whole National team. Without guys like Andzs Flaksis I wouldn't have had the results I did. At the time I was really hoping for a WorldTour contract, as a podium in Euro Champs and 5th in Worlds are pretty solid results, but looking back I'm glad I chose and got the opportunity to ride with Hincapie and on their program. In the Conti level they are the best team for non-U23 young guns. No doubt. Loved every moment on that squad.
Once I saw all the directors and they told me what races I'd be doing then it kind of hit me and I thought I was dreaming. They put me into all the cool races I wanted to do: Flanders, Amstel, Liege, Fleche. Now I just had to prove they made the right call and train my ass off in the winter.
AR: You raced the Rutland-Melton CiCLEClassic over the rubble and fields that season with Rietumu-Delfin; Definitley one of my favourite races! How was that? It’s our version of a Flemish ‘Classic’ here in the UK...
TS: It was pretty cool. My sister actually lives in Nottingham so I got to visit her, stay with her for a week or so, ride the course before the race and, as such, be at least mentally ready for what was about to come. I do really enjoy races like Flanders and Tro Bro Leon, so it was just up my alley. Think my MTB skills give me an advantage too. The race itself wasn't great for us as a squad as the whole team missed the break and ended up fighting for minor places. Think there were 10 guys that rode away, so I came 2nd from the rest. Not bad, but definitely wished and knew I could do better.
AR: Ok, onto 2014 & 2015: Lots of racing in the USA, more solid showings – big wins in Beauce and huge win in Amgen Tour of California! How was that to get a result in California on the world stage?
TS: Ya, those two years were sweet. Both result-wise and just the friends I made and people I met. Different scenery went down good. I still get goose-bumps when thinking of ATOC 2015 and the TTT champs of 2015 too. The TTT was real special for me as I love those events and it was spectacular to share it with a bunch of my friends. Standing on the podium alone is boring. Plus I can call myself a US National Champ, not a lot of other Latvians can do that -I'm pretty sure there's only one: Andzs Flaksis! As for ATOC it just showed the world how good Team Hincapie is. It wasn't just my win, the whole team won with the way they defended my lead the next days and as soon as it came back to me to defend it -in the ITT - I lost it… which was a bummer and I felt real bad about it after the way guys rode for me the previous days. Anyhow, it was huge. Also massive for the sponsors as it’s not very often a Conti team gets to win a stage and lead ATOC. It was awesome and I was glad to give back something to the sponsors and especially Rich and George.
AR: This year you made the big step up to WorldTour with Cannondale Drapac Pro Cycling Team. Talk us through those first moments of arriving at winter camp and looking around at who you would be riding with and the team name you had on your kit: Was there a moment of pinching yourself to make sure you weren’t dreaming? Nerves? Excitement?
TS: Some of the first conversations were pretty funny. Like, "oh, I didn't know you were on the team. Cool." I knew a couple of people and there were 10 new guys and everyone spoke English and was open to new faces, so it was actually super nice. We had some fun bonding experiences, some cool hikes. It was in Aspen and Cannondale had brought mountain bikes so we got to ride some sick trails and just enjoy the week and relax. Once I saw all the directors and they told me what races I'd be doing then it kind of hit me and I thought I was dreaming. They put me into all the cool races I wanted to do: Flanders, Amstel, Liege, Fleche. Now I just had to prove they made the right call and train my ass off in the winter.
AR: How was that transition as far as what was expected of you and what the team could provide in way of support? How big is the gap between development level squads and the huge pressure of WorldTour?
TS: We had it really good in Hincapie. Like... Really good. From other teams the step might have been bigger, but still stepping up to Cannondale Drapac, you saw how involved the sponsors, like Mavic, POC and, of course, Cannondale are - it was cool. It's all bigger, you know - more staff, more riders, more equipment - which also sometimes means more problems, but this team has great people running the logistics from the service course, so even if there are some hiccups, they get solved quick and efficiently.
AR: Who are the guys you have learnt most from and what are the key lessons you have taken from your first WorldTour season?
TS: We have some real experienced and open to teaching riders like Uran, Clarke, Ramunas, Breschel. These guys were the ones I learnt from the most. From Riggo I learnt that eating bannanas is key in doing well in Grand Tours, from Ramunas I learn how to take everything with a cool head, Simon was a mastermind in positioning and rooming with Matti has always been hilarious. You should see the videos I have! Actually, also Alan Marangoni was a super cool teammate to have. His English is so good but he's so Italian that every team dinner with him at the table was funny. Nothing better than a good joke after a miserable day of racing.
AR: You’ve based yourself in Girona this year – I know the riding and culture is superb as a tourist, have you enjoyed it as a home-from-home?
TS: Girona is the place to live, especially if you're riding for Cannondale Drapac. We have a team gym, team physios, the service course etc. However, even for any cyclist, the town is more and more welcoming every year. There's people speaking English, the weather is perfect to be able to ride your bike any time of the year. The roads are spectacular for training. There's a great community, it's not just a tourist town. The Catalans are welcoming and honest people. It's small enough to be able to walk everywhere, but at the same time the airports are close - from Barcelona you can find flights anywhere. I also love the weekly farmer’s markets that you can find pretty much any day of the week in different locations. The one in La Devesa is my favourite one and whenever I'm in Girona for more than a week I stock up on goodies there. Here's a tip: Go there around 14.00 when most are packing up and leaving and you'll find fruit being thrown at you for cheap.
From Riggo I learnt that eating bannanas is key in doing well in Grand Tours, from Ramunas I learn how to take everything with a cool head, Simon was a mastermind in positioning and rooming with Matti has always been hilarious.
AR: You mentioned in your blog that you rode in both classics guy’s and climber’s groups on the Cannondale Drapac Pro Cycling Team training camp. You’ve proved your ability in the week-long stage races and seem often to feature in the polka-dot classification at those races: What sort of rider do you and the team see you as developing into for the future?
TS: Ha! Great question. I've got no idea what they think. Nor which direction I want to go. I think I'll still try to do everything for a couple of years and then really focus on something. Maybe. I just like to race whenever I can, no matter what the race and be competitive in every type of race. I guess we'll see.
AR: Ok, let’s re-phrase it – If I could grant you one wish, what would it be: Stage-Race mountain-goat or Classics champion?
TS: I think and I'd like to excel in one day races and week-long stage races. Three week grand tour GC is sometimes too boring - and the guy with the biggest engine wins. I've never been that guy and don't think I'll ever be with my genes. So I can, and have been, winning races where you need some panache, guts and a brain, not just legs.
AR: Let’s talk specifics from your WorldTour debut season. Your first WorldTour race was the Ronde van Vlaanderen - what a race to debut at! Talk us through the memorable moments, the atmosphere and the race itself. How cut-throat was the legendary battling for position at corners for the climbs? It’s the most important day of the year in Flanders – were you prepared for the whole thing or was it something that you cannot comprehend until you’ve been in the middle of it!?
TS: Hey, and it was the 100th edition! Pretty bad ass huh? It's one of my dream races and I was in real good condition, so the fight for position didn't feel bad, the fans were insane. I saw people with beers at the start line... We started at like 11.00am. I could smell beer on people’s breath while riding up the Kwaremont the final time. The faster you ride the cobbles the better, it's like a band-aid: You just need to get over it quick. So as you get more fatigued the climbs hurt more and more. I got a bit unfortunate and had a mid-race shoe swap right when Etixx-Quickstep hit the front, which meant I chased for like 40km pretty much alone. But I got there and passed guys that I didn't ever see the field again. So I was pretty stoked on that. It's a sweet race and one I'm hoping I get to do for years to come...
AR: You also took a win as a WorldTour rider with a second victory at Amgen Tour of California! How was that? Relief that you proved it was no ‘flash in the pan’ the previous year or just overwhelming elation?
TS: Actually pretty much. I knew I deserved to be there, but getting at least one win a year in a solid UCI race feels just great. Definitely relieved. Definitely happy. I was glad I managed to get my director worried, by attacking far out and winning.
AR: And yet another close call in the Latvian Champs this year… you must be itching to get hold of that National Champs jersey?
TS: Ahh... Yes. That actually might be the one race I never win. Serious. It would suck. I'm proud to be Latvian and would love to have the honour of wearing the colours for a year. But I'd be ok with not winning nationals as long as I can tick off some big Classics or other big races off the list.
AR: Your season finale came in Italy with a couple of those beautiful late-season, one-day races - they seem super aggressive as a spectator – what was your experience of La Dolce Vita?
TS: The Italian races were fun. Last time I raced in Italy was 2013 Worlds, so it had been a while. The first two races I had to work for the team, so I just called it a day once the break was caught and my job was done as I knew there was another race the next day. Then, on the final day, the team said I could go for it and I made the most of it. Some aggressive racing, but in the end it was all made up for a sprint; so after coming back in the last 18km from a miracle crash where I took myself out - but landed with grace - I led out Tom into the final km and called it a year. I would have loved to race Il Lombardia, but it was not meant to be. Not because of my crash, but just the team plan was different. Watching it was super cool, especially with the extra access I had as a team member. Definitely a race I'll remember even though I didn't race it.
AR: The team came super close to the win a number of times during those Italian races! What was the feeling leaving Italy after the campaign: Happy with aggressive racing or disappointed to miss out so narrowly?
TS: Definitely everyone was bit down on missing that win, but we did all we could and feel like the team we had there lacked a bit of... "spice"- however you want to call that final piece: That hunger for the win, that feeling when everything goes fast and smooth like a well-oiled fat dude down the water slide!
We started at like 11.00am. I could smell beer on people’s breath while riding up the Kwaremont the final time. The faster you ride the cobbles the better, it's like a band-aid: You just need to get over it quick
AR: You mentioned you got to watch the Race of the Falling Leaves as a fan – how strong is the fan within you? Is it fun or nerve-racking to stand on the other side of the curbside? Can you put aside the team allegiances and cheer for your old heroes on such a day? Could you enjoy a beer & a pizza with the race coverage as your season was at its end?
TS: I'm still a big fan of cycling. I still make a fantasy league for the big races, pick a team myself and award the winner of my league with a prize. Why? Because I enjoy it and I want people to see why cycling is so great! I always cheer for my favourites even if they are not on my team. No pizza or beer while the race was going on – however, I did have some delicious Italian gellato and pizza post-race...
AR: So, to round this out, what are the dreams for 2017?
TS: I want to do a grand tour next year. Hopefully the Giro. Hopefully again do the Classics. Win another big race. Win the Nationals - I can still dream right?! Solid performance at the Worlds. Do some MTB races again. So guess I better train my ass off. Literally this time, as the team said I'm fat and need to lose weight... Kidding. Or maybe I'm not.