Toms Skujiņš savoured his victory at the Tre Valli Varesine race and every moment of the colourful-but-hectic podium ceremony in Varese, happy to have found excellent form and the winning formula as the days countdown to the fifth and final Monument - Il Lombardia.
Last Sunday, Skujiņš played a crucial part in helping his Trek-Segafredo teammate Bauke Mollema win the Gran Premio Bruno Beghelli. He got his turn in Varese on Tuesday, continuing Trek-Segafredo's run of end-of-season success and confirming that the US-registered WorldTour team will be one of strongest outfits for the 'Race of the Falling Leaves' on Saturday.
"This is the biggest one-day race I've ever won, it's up there," Skujiņš said after beating a strong Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), a resurgent Pete Kennaugh (Bora-Hansgrohe) and world championships bronze medallist Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac) after being in the final late attack. They and three others held off a group of 16 chasers, including new world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) after an aggressive and thrilling finale in the Varese hills.
"There was a strong field," Skujins said. "In the finale, I was perhaps the least well known, but I know my sprint is not bad and that my form was good. I knew that Kennaugh was fast and that Uran was working for Woods, but I went for it. It worked out."
Skujiņš has won three stages at the Tour of California in his career, and this was his fourth win of the 2018 season after striking early at the Trofeo Mallorca in late January and again in California – where he celebrated in a unique style. He also won the Latvian time trial title in June and wore the polka-dot mountains classification jersey for five days in the first half of the Tour de France.
After emerging via the Latvian mountain bike scene, Skujiņš raced for the VC La Pomme in 2011 and 2012, moved to the US to ride for the Hincapie Development team in 2014 and 2015, before stepping up to WorldTour level with Cannondale in 2016. He joined Trek-Segafredo's multinational squad this season and amply paid the team back for their support.
"Every year has been good for me. Last year was better than the year before, and this year is better than last year. I'm slowly going up," Skujiņš explained, his natural confidence shining through.
"I've been feeling better and better since the start of the season. Even now, after like 80 race days, I'm feeling pretty strong. That's thanks to the team; they've been taking really good care of me and not racing me too often but often enough to have good races when the races are on."
A dark horse for Il Lombardia
The way Skujiņš raced Tre Valli Varesine and the way he beat Pinot and the combination of Woods and Uran, makes him at least a dark house for Saturday's Il Lombardia.
Skujiņš has ridden Liège-Bastogne-Liège three times but has never tested his Classics skills in the Lombardy hills. He wisely played down his chances for his debut, but the Tre Valli Varesine win is always an indication of form.
"I think Lombardia is going to be exciting; our strength is in our numbers," Skujiņš told Cyclingnews.
"We've got Bauke as the leader. I'm probably going to go for a long one again, as here. Lombardia is always hard to control, and so maybe we end up as at Beghelli, where we had three guys in the front group of 12. I'm sure Michael Gogl will be great too. I think Lombardia is going to be an exciting race to watch."