Toms Skujins' win Tuesday during stage 3 of the Tour of California caught nearly everyone at the race by surprise, maybe none more than his Hincapie Racing teammates, who expressed their disbelief – and joy – when they crossed the finish line several minutes later and first heard the news.
The 23-year-old Latvian attacked his breakaway companions on the slopes of Mt. Hamilton and then held off the chasing peloton for 55km to take the biggest win of his career, earning the race leader's yellow jersey and the mountains jersey in the process.
"I can't believe he stayed away," LottoNL-Jumbo team leader Robert Gesink told Cyclingnews at the finish line. "He had four minutes, but all the teams were pulling, so he was really, really strong, I must say."
Etixx-QuickStep's Julian Alaphilippe, who finished third behind perpetual runner-up Peter Sagan, also expressed his amazement by the Hincapie rider’s effort.
"I was surprised because the rider on the front was really, really strong," he said. "Saxo and Sky were pulling full gas and he stayed alone, and he finished with one minute. He was really, really strong. I finished third behind Sagan, so I’m not disappointed."
When Sagan made it over the out-of-category climb up Mt. Hamilton and two-satge winer Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) didn’t, the peloton expected Tinkoff to pick up the chase to set up Sagan for his first win of the week.
"When Sagan came over Mt. Hamilton in the front group, we all looked at Saxo, but by then the gap was too big, so good job by Hincapie to get a guy up the road," said Phil Gaimon, who expressed his surprise over Skujins' stage win with his typical humorous flair.
"Oh, is that who won?" Gaimon asked. "Good for him. He's a nice boy. It took us by surprise. I didn't even know. I knew there was one guy up there, but it's not our job to chase."
Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), who spent his second consecutive day in the breakaway and was one of the last riders that Skujins' dropped on Mt. Hamilton, did not initially hold out hope for the escape's success.
"The breakaway was pretty good, but also I think Tinkoff wanted to win one stage with Sagan," he told Cyclingnews. "But on the last climb the gap was still pretty big, and we started think about the final. Also, the guy who won did a really nice climb on the last climb. I was not in a good condition when he went, so I had to wait and then recover again, but it was too late. He was really strong."
Skujins benefited from a peloton that looked to Tinkoff to take care of the chase, but the fluorescent yellow team lacked the numbers to make it happen.
Maybe the only person who wasn’t surprised by Skujins' win was his director, Thomas Craven, who recalled is young rider's winning performance last year at the Tour de Beauce in Canada, where he won two stages, the overall, the points jersey and the jersey for best young rider.
"It was just like Tour de Beauce last year," Craven said. "It was the same scenario, the same strategy: just get the things going, wait until the big climb, and then let it rip. We sort of talked about this scenario. It wasn't too far off from what we talked about trying to do last night. Believe it or not it was a plan."
Skujins' win is the second for Hincapie in a 2.HC race after Robin Carpenter won a controversial stage last year at the USA Pro Challenge.
"Last year, it was like 'Oh yeah, you guys just got lucky or you didn't have anything to lose or blah, blah, blah.' But that was a bike race," Craven said, referring to Skujins' win. "I think that was the best bike race we've seen in the United States since I was racing. It was pretty incredible."