The Hincapie Sportswear Development Team added to its list of 2014 successes last week when Toms Skujins won the overall at the UCI 2.2 Tour de Beauce in Canada. Skujins took the yellow jersey after winning stage 2 and then defended his lead through the finale on Sunday, when the 23-year-old Latvian took a second stage win along with the points jersey and the competition for best young rider.
The result in Québec is a continuation of the success the team started at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, where Joey Rosskopf won the overall with a daring attack on the final day. In just its third year as a Continental team, Hincapie has blossomed into one of the top domestic teams in the US, animating every race it enters and landing on the podium more often than it did in either of the previous two seasons.
Team director Thomas Craven said this year's breakout season is the result of putting together a solid group of riders that enjoy each others' company on and off the bike.
"This group has been together for two years, really, the core bunch of guys," Craven said. "I added some really key riders - Toms being one of them. He adds another element to the team as well as being just like the rest of us. So it's the familiarity, and we all get along. I think we're the only team that hangs out as much as we do. So it's just fun. I cook for these guys everyday. We hang out at night and watch movies. There's no language barrier. There's no hierarchy. It's just all of us guys hanging out on the road."
The team entered the Continental ranks in 2012 as the BMC-Hincapie Sportswear Development Team. Hincapie Sportswear assumed title sponsorship for the past two years after BMC started its own development squad based in Europe. The 2014 Hincapie roster includes nine riders from the US, two from New Zealand and, of course, Skujins, the lone Latvian. It's also got a well-known booster in George Hincapie, the former pro whose company owns the team.
"George loves it," Craven told Cyclingnews Sunday after his team had successfully defended Skujins' overall lead on the way to winning the top team prize. "It's a great way for him to be involved in the sport. My desk is right next to his, so we talk and we help pick the teams. He called two days ago about the strategy as well as the strategy for today. He's involved, and he comes to the closer races. We work together. He doesn't tell me what to do, but I definitely ask him for advice."
So far this year the team has won both of its major targets for the first racing block of the season. Craven said that during the off-season, he set Redlands and Beauce as the team's first two major objectives.
"In my mind these two races were super important for us," he said. "And so I built the team around doing well at Redlands and doing well here. I had [the Tour de Beauce] team picked out a long time ago. We raced [Beauce] last year, and I had never been here before. I thought it was a great event, but I didn't know exactly how it was going to play out. I steamed over that one all year."
During the 2013 race, Rosskpof won the individual time trial, and he and Oscar Clark went into the final stage sitting in eighth and ninth, respectively. But the riders missed the winning move on the notoriously difficult circuit race in St-Georges on the final day, losing their chances for the overall win and slipping more than three minutes down the general classification rankings. Nathan Brown, riding for Bontrager last year, made that move and took the final race lead from 5-hour Energy's Francisco Mancebo.
Craven and his team were determined not to make the same mistake this year.
"We put the plan into place on the first day," Craven said. "It didn't quite work out, so the next day was the next plan, and that's the way it went from there. Toms is an incredible rider. He had a slow start to the year, but I saw the glimmers there like three weeks ago, and I knew that this was going to be a good race for him up here."
Skujins held onto his lead with a solid ride in the stage 3 time trial, and the team handily defended his jersey during the rain-soaked circuit race in Québec City. But the circuit in St-Georges is known for blowing apart the general classification, as it did the year before with Mancebo.
"We knew that coming in," Craven said. "Last year I saw it. I mean last year I was like, 'I really screwed up bad,' because I didn't understand the way the race was going to play out, and we waited. And so we really wanted to protect, but the green light was given so that once it starts, we race. So it's over, you're free to go. And I think that's where people make the mistake. They will continue to protect and wait and wait and wait, thinking that their team is coming back. But once the team goes, they're gone."
The team rode aggressively on the front early, then Skujins and Dion Smith marked every move until the finale, where Skujins took over as a one-man army. He made a selection of 15 riders that formed during the third-to-last lap, and then he survived another culling down to a lead group of five with two laps remaining. From there, the young rider who was also celebrating his 23rd birthday on Sunday, rode a smart race and took his second stage win.
"He was contributing," Craven said. "But he wasn't doing more than he needed to, and he was waiting until the finish. It was his birthday, so he had the extra birthday strength in him."
Skujins had the strength to mark an attack in the final kilometer then jump away from three remaining riders in the final 200 meters, finishing just ahead of Rob Britton (Team SmartStop) and Edson Calderon (4-72 Colombia). It was both Skujins' and the team's first overall win in a UCI stage race.
While the rest of the team takes a break before building up for the second half of the season, Skujins will head home to Latvia for his national championships. Then he'll rejoin the team for some of the big races that are coming up.
Hincapie Sportswear will compete in the Cascade Cycling Classic before heading to the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and the Tour of Alberta. The team is also hoping for its first-ever invitation to the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.
"We were knocking on the door last year a couple of times with some stage finishes," Craven said of the big North American 2.1 and 2.HC races. "So I think that's a natural progression. Let's go up against some ProTour guys and see how we stack up for that. We're not going to win the overall, but we can definitely give them a run for the money."