Last year, after a successful move on stage 5, Toms Skujiņš became the first Latvian to ever wear the polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France. A year on, Skujiņš was back in the stage 5 breakaway again, this time with his eyes set on Wednesday's stage win in Colmar. The most combative rider prize at the end of the day might not have been what he'd hoped for, but his brand-new Latvian national champion jersey remained on display until the finale.
Trek-Segafredo have so far been playing at three tables in the Tour de France saloon. Rallied around Porte, the team's riders ensured their leader avoided any misfortunes on the road, but in the sprint finals they’ve positioned Jasper Stuyven to try for stage wins, and on a hilly day in Alsace they made their presence known in the breakaway.
Skujiņš' move wasn’t unexpected, but it may not be a regular feature of this year’s Tour for the 28-year-old. He understands why he earned the spot on the team and what the bigger picture is.
"Everything is for Richie. That’s the main goal," he told Cyclingnews ahead of the start of the Tour in Brussels. "Maybe it hasn’t been the easiest start for him, but at the same time you see that he’s progressed at every race. We had a good camp in Isola [in Italy] just before this. Maybe he won’t be winning at La Planche des Belles Filles [stage 6], but he’s definitely on the up."
Porte’s quest to survive three weeks without any unlucky moments got off to a good start, as the Australian, victim of crashes in last two editions of the race, has managed so far to escape any incidents on the road. The only setback has been the team time trial performance – 18th place in Brussels on stage 2 saw Porte lose over a minute to the race’s main favourites – although 34-year-old will not be too worried about it.
Coming into the Tour without stellar results but with a number of altitude camps under his belt, the Trek-Segafredo leader was looking past Thursday’s finish on La Planche des Belles Filles – where he finished 11th, in the same group as fellow GC contenders Jakob Fuglsang, Egan Bernal and Mikel Landa – and will be more interested in the Alpine stages come week three.
"He doesn’t need seven bodyguards around him every day, so there are going to be days when we go for Jasper for the sprint," Skujiņš said. "Depending on how complicated the run-in is, Jasper may get more guys or fewer guys. Then there are always a few days when the GC riders can relax a bit more, the sprinters can’t get over the climbs and there is the possibility of breaks. We have a good enough team to go for them, and I know I will be given a green light on some of these days."
The light flashed green for the Latvian on Wednesday as the race entered Vosges, and Skujiņš ended up cresting the climbs with Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Simon Clarke (EF Education First) and Mads Würtz Schmidt (Katusha-Alpecin) – a solid group attempting to decide both the polka-dot jersey standings and the stage win.
A three-time Tour of California stage winner, Skujiņš took wins on the American roads twice ahead of groups with Peter Sagan gearing up for the sprint. This time around his breakaway group wasn’t given much room by the Slovakian’s Bora-Hansgrohe squad, nor by Team Sunweb, and Skujiņš had to lay down his arms on the final climb of the day and later see Sagan celebrate the stage win.
"We knew it was going to be a gamble as to whether the break was going to make it or not," Skujiņš said in a post-race video posted by Trek-Segafredo. "Obviously, it would have been better if there had been a little bit of a bigger group, but still with the four guys that were there, we were strong and rode as well together as we could. We didn’t make it to the line, but at least we made them work for it."
Picking the most suitable day to go on the attack at a Grand Tour and executing his plan is not a luxury that a rider can be afforded while riding on a GC-orientated team.
"[Being] given a green light, you also need to be able to capitalise on it," he said, "because… you might know it five days in advance, or you might just know it a day before or even on the day. Capitalising on that opportunity is the hard part, but the team has confidence in me and a few other guys to let us off the leash, so to speak."
Skujiņš, who last year netted wins at the Tre Valli Varesine and took his third stage victory at the Tour of California, has this year been combining racing in both the Classics and week-long races. Ninth place at Strade Bianche stands out on his palmares, and while he admits that his climbing has got better, the results have not always reflected it.
"At Amstel Gold I was fighting for a place in the top 10. That has never been the case before. And at Liege-Bastogne-Liege I finished just outside the top 20, which was also a first for me, and I’d also crashed that day. That wasn’t ideal, but it just shows that I’ve improved within certain areas, and improved in races in which I’ve been given the opportunity to ride for myself," Skujiņš noted when asked about a sense of development.
"And I’d never done Strade Bianche before, and that was my first-ever WorldTour one-day top 10. So there has been progress all round. That’s what I’ve been hoping for, and that’s what I try to do every year – and every year so far it’s happened."
Skujiņš has made the Tour team for the second time in a row – this year after having been told he may make the squad during the pre-season. Having smaller goals along the way – working for teammates at WorldTour stage races, seeking his own opportunities and being a part of Trek-Segafredo’s Classics outfit – all pointed to a classic Tour-preparation programme. On the one hand, the first half of Skujiņš’ season provided him with a way of earning a spot on the eight-men squad for July, but on the other, his programme also suited his approach of not specialising and being an all-rounder, albeit not in a Grand Tour sense.
"My goal is to be very, very good all round – to be a Swiss-army-knife kind of rider, or whatever you want to call it," he said. "So, the team can put me in any race, and I’m not there to be the seventh guy. I’m there to actually help and actually be there in the final."
Skujiņš might not have capitalised on the opportunity on stage 5, but his Trek-Segafredo team will be counting on his versatility in the days to come.
"I’m not going to be there in the final three kilometres on La Planche des Belles Filles, or whatever," he said. "But I feel like I’ve been climbing a little bit better than in previous years, so I should be there longer than before."