SALINAS, Calif. – Toms Skujins was in a breakaway at the Tour of California a year ago when he crashed heavily on the descent, then woozily tried to remount his bike despite what turned out to be a concussion.
His breakaway had a better ending Tuesday.
The Latvian rider from Trek-Segafredo jumped into the leading group on the Cachagua Road Summit, then crested the final climb at Laguna Seca Raceway, pulling away from breakaway companion Sean Bennett of Hagens Berman Axeon to win his third career Tour of California stage.
Bennett finished three seconds back, and Caleb Ewan – again showing sharp legs this week – won a bunch sprint from a hard-charging peloton to round out the podium, another five seconds adrift.
“Last year, obviously, didn’t pan out as I wanted it to,” Skujins said with a chuckle. “Today was definitely a hard one. Never is an easy one. The breakaway was super strong and obviously played into our advantage. It whittled down the field pretty quick. At the end there were very few people.”
Egan Bernal of Team Sky finished safely in the peloton to maintain his overall lead heading into Wednesday’s time trial. But with just 40 seconds on Antwan Tolhoek and several other contenders within striking distance, Bernal could have a tough time keeping the leader’s jersey.
The difficult time trial covers about 21.5 miles around San Jose.
“A long day with the wind. It was hard. And the final part was so fast,” Bernal said. “I think the Team Sky guys did a really good job. They tried to control the final part for us. The most important was to keep the GC jersey and save some energy for tomorrow. I hope to do a good time trial.”
The 122-mile third stage Tuesday began in King City and featured enough categorized climbs to give a breakaway a chance. But all along, the assumption was the field would come together before riders hit the famous Laguna Seca Raceway, and that the sprinters would contest a lightning-fast finish.
Instead, an early breakaway of Evan Huffman, Robin Carpenter and Ian Garrison put pressure on the peloton. Then it was Lawson Craddock giving it a go. And ultimately, it was Skujins and Bennett that got into the decisive breakaway, and the duo pushed their power meters to the limit.
“I was fully committed,” Bennett said, “and I knew that if I didn’t work, it wasn’t going to stay away at all, so I gave it everything. It clearly hurt me in the end.”
Skujins was worried that Bennett would have more left in his legs on the final climb, and then the thought occurred to him that the rest of the field would sweep by just before the finish.
Neither of which happened.
“Over the top, I wasn’t sure how much Sean had in me. If he had a couple more pedal strokes he could come back on the downhill,” Skujins said. “But we were so deep in the pain cave.”
The win gave Skujins another reason to love, rather than loathe, a race that caused him so much pain a year ago. Skujins also captured the third stage in 2015 after spending most of the day in a heroic solo breakaway, which allowed him to spend a couple of days in the overall leader’s jersey.
He won the fifth stage two years ago and now has a third stage victory on his resume. “Three out of four is still pretty good,” he said of his streak, alluding to the scary crash of a year ago. “I definitely wouldn’t have believed it if they said I’d win next year again.”