Tom Skujins gets early birthday present at Tour de Beauce

Hincapie Sportswear's Tom Skujins, who won the Tour de Beauce Queen Stage that finished at the Top of Mont Meganitc on Thursday, celebrated his upcoming birthday a little earlier than expected. The 22-year-old Latvian will turn 23 on Sunday, when he was hoping to win the UCI 2.2 race's final stage.

"I was thinking about that one," he said of Sunday's circuit race around Saint George. "But it's always nice to get two presents maybe."

But another stage win on Sunday would technically be three presents, because Skujins also rode into the race lead Thursday when he won the stage ahead of Amore & Vita's Michael Woods and Optum Pro Cycling's Carter Jones.

Skujins made the day's main breakaway of eight riders, which got away about 30km into the 167.4km stage, and bridged to two leaders when the breakaway began to splinter. Then he rode away from Team SmartStop's Joshua Berry and Jure Kocjan at the bottom of the final climb to take the day's win and the yellow jersey. He currently leads Woods in the general classification by 53 seconds and Jones by 1:51.

This season is Skujins' first with the Hincapie Development Team. He rode for la Pomme-Marseille, a French Continental team, in 2011 and 2012 and then the Latvian Continental team Rietmu-Delfin last year. But after finishing fifth in the U23 world championship road race at the end of the season, Skujins was eager to accept an offer from the Hincapie team run by Thomas Craven.

"With this team we do bigger races, and the calendar is a lot better than a Latvian Continental team would have," he said of his decision to make the switch. "I had never been to America, and so it was kind of taking a step over the ocean — a big step. So I was coming here to see what the racing was like, and of course I had heard a lot of good stuff about Hincapie and the development team."

Skujins said that as a young rider in his first year out of the U23 ranks, the development side of the team carried tremendous appeal.

"And they take really good care of me and all of the riders," he said. "It's a real nice pleasure to be on the team, just because it's incredible and you get a lot more out of it than you would get on a usual Continental team."

Skujins has had a relatively quiet year with Hincapie Sportswear up until this month. He finished 14th at the Winston-Salem Classic before riding the Tour of the Gila, where he finished 21st overall. His best ride before Thursday came at the Philadelphia Cycling Classic, where he finished sixth.

But the young rider proved his mettle Thursday by making the breakaway, bridging to the next selection toward the end of the race and then leaving everyone behind during the climb up Mont Megantic. Skujins took a big gamble on the stage, and it paid off with a big win.

"I didn't know the climb, so I was a little bit scared," he said of the mountain-top finish. "And I wasn't sure about the SmartStop guys — how were they feeling — because in the end we weren't riding as hard before the climb. I didn't know if they were really tired or just playing the poker game, so I wasn't confident at all.

"But once we got onto the climb, I just had to do whatever I could to be up there," he said. "And with one kilometer to go I thought, 'I've got this,' because the commissaire came up and told me I had a minute on the next rider. And a kilometer in a minute is probably enough."

As important as his win on Thursday was to his development and confidence, Skujins said his ride at last year's world championships still stands out in his mind as his best result so far.

"I definitely value the fifth place in the worlds," he said. "It was a big deal for me because I was feeling bad and my knee was hurting really bad; I had crashed like three days earlier in a small race. That's still a memory I will keep in my head until I die I think."

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