Latvian Toms Skujins (Hincapie Racing) didn't start his 2015 season thinking about leading the UCI America Tour or winning USA Cycling's National Racing Calendar, but when you put together a season like Skujins has so far, those kinds of benchmarks naturally fall into place.
Skujins, 23, secured the individual NRC win for himself and the top team honors for Hincapie Saturday when he finished second to UnitedHealthcare's Danny Summerhill in a soaking wet Reading 120, the last stop on the season-long US national series. Skujins' runner-up result in the UCI 1.2 race also propelled him to the top of the America Tour standings with four Latin American events remaining.
The Hincapie rider survived a confusing and difficult time in the early part of the race in Reading, as rain clobbered the peloton for most of the day. Fortunately, he had just completed the Tour of Alberta, where the peloton battled rain and even some snow for six days in Canada.
"The difference is that it was actually warm and you didn't have to have five layers on," Skujins said of the Pennsylvania race.
As the race of attrition played out over the finishing circuits through Reading, Skujins rebounded from his own crash, got a bike change and then proceeded to bridge to the two leaders up the road, Summerhill and his UnitedHealthcare teammate Tanner Putt. Skujins and Summerhill dropped Putt on the second-to-last climb up Mount Penn, leaving the pair to fight for the win over the final lap and the greasy descent to the finish.
"For sure Summerhill was not going to help me a lot, so I had to do most of the work," Skujins said. "That meant I couldn't drop him on the next climb. Then on the downhill, where I had already crashed, I didn't want to take any risks because I've got the Worlds TTT ahead of me, so I was just happy to hold on for second. I was not too confident in myself and I just didn't want to risk it again."
Summerhill's cyclo-cross skills came to the fore as Skujins backed off, opening a gap that the Unitedhealthcare rider built on and then held to the line. Skujins came in 10 seconds later for second, followed by Summerhill's teammate Chris Jones in third. The finish was enough to boost Skujins to the top of both series rankings.
"It wasn't the goal," he said, "it's just like a very good bonus. Heading into this race when I saw that I was close to the NRC and the America Tour rankings, it was little bit of motivation to get back in there and just try and fight for however high a place I could get."
Skujins gobbled up most of his NRC points with 20th overall at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, 20th overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race (2.2), a win at the Winston-Salem Classic (1.2) and third at the Philly Cycling Classic (1.2). He went into Saturday's race fourth in the individual standings behind Optum Pro Cycling's Michael Woods, who was competing in the Canadian WorldTour races, Gregory Brenes (Jamis-Hagens Berman) and John Murphy (UnitedHealthcare).
Skujins also jumped past Woods and Byron Guama (Team Ecuador) to take the lead in the America Tour, although with no plans to compete in the four remaining races in Latin America he won't likely keep the lead through the end of that series.
Skujins' most high-profile win, of course, came in May at the Tour of California, where he won stage 3 with an audacious solo move from the day's breakaway, taking the race lead along the way and keeping the leader's jersey through three stages. As he pointed out, the UCI points Skujins earned in California account for most of his America Tour success, which he credited to a season of hard work from his team.
"It's really exciting to be leading the America Tour," he said. "Most of the points I got were in California, and that was just the team holding the jersey and getting me points, so I'm really stoked for that."
Skujins is currently focused on Richmond and the upcoming World Championships, where he will compete with Hincapie in the team time trial.
"That's the plan so far at least," he said. "And if any spot opens up for the national team, then I might just get to do the road race, but more likely than not I won't be doing the road race."
The other target currently on Skujins' radar is securing a spot next year at a higher level, either with a Pro Continental team or a WorldTour team, although he said there are currently no definitive offers on the table.
"My agent is still trying to get hold of some WorldTour teams and trying to find a spot for me there, but so far there are no certain offers just yet, so I'm hoping for the best," he said. "But even if I have to stay with Hincapie, it's a freaking good team to be on and definitely the one team I want to be on in America now."
Leading the America Tour and winning the final NRC standings certainly can't hurt Skujins' search.
"Definitely," he said. "Especially for some team looking for last spots to fill, you know. I don't think I'm the worst option to take."
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