Cannondale-Garmin confirmed today that they have signed Hincapie Racing's Toms Skujins, a 24-year-old Latvian who won a stage at the Tour of California this year and led the race for three days, to a two-year deal starting in 2016.
"It's very exciting. It's going to be a very fun two years with the team," Skujins told Cyclingnews while traveling from Cannondale's recent training camp in Aspen to his home in Latvia.
"It's definitely been one of my goals for awhile, and I'm super stoked that it happened with this team at this time. Every year I've wanted to go WorldTour, but I'm happy I had the chance to stay with Hincapie for two years. I wouldn't change that, but it's super exciting to be with the new team."
Skujins has raced at the Continental level since 2011, spending two years with La Pomme Marseille in France and finishing second in the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. He moved to the Latvian Rietumu-Delfin team in 2013 and finished fifth in the U23 World Championship road race that year.
Skujins joined Hincapie the following year and raced with the US team through this season. Skujins found his first success with the team at the 2014 Tour de Beauce in Canada, where he took the overall, two stages, the points jersey, the youth jersey and was second in the mountains classification.
Skujins then went on a tear this season. His first win of the year came in April as part of Hincapie's six-rider team time trial squad at the US national championships. The next month he won stage 3 in California and wore the yellow jersey until Peter Sagan took it from him during the weather-shortened stage 6 time trial.
Skujins backed up his California result by winning the 1.2 Winston-Salem Classic at the end of May and then taking third at the Philly Cycling Classic the next week. He led the Tour de Beauce going into the final stage but lost the overall by 15 seconds after an all-out blitz from winner Pello Bilboa's Pro Continental Caja Rural-Seguros RGA team.
After suffering in the altitude during the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, Skujins returned at the end of this season to score top 10 overall finishes at the USA Pro Challenge and the Tour of Alberta. His second-place finish at a very wet Reading 120 in September sealed the USA Cycling National Racing Calendar series win and put him into the lead of the UCI America Tour.
"Definitely California helped," Skujins said of which results drew Cannondale's attention. "But I think it was my consistency, not just winning a stage in California but also having top 10 results in Colorado and Alberta."
Slipstream Sports CEO Jonathan Vaughters said Skujins' results are only part of what the team found attractive in their latest rider.
"Toms has had great results as U23 rider, holding the race leader's jersey in the Amgen Tour of California, winning the Tour de Beauce, and getting a top 10 in U23 Road World Championships, but what I admire most about him is that he has earned this opportunity the hard way, by working hard and getting great results on his way up," Vaughters said in a statement released by the team.
Skujins' agent contacted Vaughters in September, and the two parties quickly came to terms. "Vaughters said that he had been keeping track of me for awhile, as I've found out later from him. They just gave the green light and we signed the contract."
Skujins told Cyclingnews he sees himself as developing into a similar type of rider at the WorldTour level, doing well in hilly one-day races like the Ardennes Classics and the Tour of Flanders, while also targeting weeklong stage races.
Indeed, the Ardennes appear to suit Skujins well with their narrow roads, punchy climbs and punishing cobbles. And the young Latvian has previously fared well in adverse conditions when the weather turns nasty.
"I think those are the races that I've dreamed of riding: the Ardennes Classics and Flanders," he said. "I'd like to try Roubaix as well at some point, but I think the hillier stuff will suit me a little bit more, like Flanders than just the flat-out Roubaix cobbles.
"But also, definitely the week-long stage races like California, the Dauphine, Paris-Nice. I think those are less scripted and more aggressive, which suits my style of racing a lot more than Grand Tour racing, where it's just conserve, conserve, conserve."
Skujins will likely get his wish this year. He's tentatively scheduled to start out at the team in Mallorca, where Cannondale usually has a training camp, then warm up with several races in France. He'll do Flanders and the Ardennes before heading back to the US in May for California.
"I'm just stoked to have such a great program and the team believing in me," he said. "I hope to come out swinging."