Last year on May 15, Toms Skujins crashed hard while off the front on stage 2 at the Amgen Tour of California, suffering the effects of a concussion as horrified spectators watched while he remounted his bike and continued on until his team car pulled alongside and convinced him to abandon.
One year later on May 15, the 26-year-old Latvian added his third Tour of California stage win with a gutsy attack near the finish at Laguna Seca Raceway.
The victory wasn't Skujin's first since the crash – he won his first for his new Trek-Segafredo team at the Trofeo Lloseta-Andratx in January – but Tuesday's win was special because of the memories from last year, or maybe because of the lack of memories, as Skujins admitted in the post-stage press conference that he doesn't remember much of his crash.
"It's brilliant," Skujins said when asked about Tuesday's win. "It's not my first win back since the crash, which is even more surprising, but California has always been special to me just because of that first win with Hincapie [team], and having the leader's jersey for a couple of days, and then suffering so badly and blowing up on the last day. But I definitely wouldn't have believed it if someone said I would win this year again – even if it was me."
In 2015, while riding for US Continental team Hincapie Sportswear, Skujins scored a solo win ahead of a fast-approaching field in San Jose. He followed that up the next year in California with another win from a breakaway – this time in Lake Tahoe ahead of Rally Cycling's Adam de Vos.
Skujins was on another breakaway attempt last year for Cannondale-Drapac when he fell on a sweeping corner. He quickly returned to his feet but wobbled across the road, twice narrowly missing passing riders. He returned to his bike, fell again, went back to his bike and then began to race again briefly before a team car arrived and pulled him out of the race.
Now he's laid those graphic images to rest with his third win in the Golden State in equally as impressive fashion as his first two. Skujins bridged to the remnants of the early breakaway with EF Education First-Drapac's Logan Owen and was later joined by Hagens Berman Axeon's Sean Bennett.
It was Skujins and Bennett who turned into Laguna Seca and the short-but-steep climb to the track while the pack barrelled down on them, having swept up all the remaining escapees.
Skujins buried himself to be the first over the top of the entry climb and onto the racetrack proper, where he swooped through the track's famous corkscrew curves and held off the chase. Bennett came in next three seconds later, and Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) led the reduced bunch in eight seconds behind the winner.
"Over the top I wasn't sure how much Sean had left in him, because if he had, like, a couple more pedal strokes, he could have come back on the downhill," Skujins said. "But we were so deep in the pain cave, I'm surprised even I had a pedal stroke left. I was expecting someone to take a flyer and blow through us at any moment."
That fear never materialised, of course, and Skujins took yet another win from a breakaway. Asked what kind of mentality it takes to make the breakaway and then make it stick, Skujins said it was the ability to suffer and push himself farther than even he could have imagined.
"You could ask the same question to Sean, because it could have been either of us," he said. "I was hurting really bad, but you just have to keep turning the pedals. It's definitely not easy. You go through moments when you're thinking, 'OK, this is it,' and then, 'OK, I can keep going for a little bit more.' Then, 'OK, this is it again.' So it's always yo-yoing a bit, I guess.
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