The determined Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) was today far from the stunned and bloodied picture that deeply worried audiences last year. In a post-race press conference, he set a gregarious tone, initially sitting amongst the press and posing as a journalist before moving to the front and centre table to talk about the emphatic 12-month turnaround.
“It’s brilliant. It’s not my first win back since the crash, which is even more surprising, but California has always been special to me,” he said. “…I definitely wouldn’t have believed if someone said I would win next year again, even if it was me.”
The 26-year-old had time to sit-up and celebrate his second victory of the season, after Trofeo Lloseta-Andratx, and career third of this race. He coasted to the finish line on the Laguna Seca race track, having gapped Sean Bennett (Hagens Berman Axeon) in the finale. Australian Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) won the reduced bunch sprint for third but was frustrated post-race, while Egan Bernal (Sky) retained the race lead.
“If he [Bennett] had a couple more pedal strokes he could come back on the downhill but we were so deep in the pain cave I’m surprised even I had a pedal stroke left,” Skujins said.
Earlier, the Latvian with about 30km remaining had bridged to the escape on the Cachagua Rd ascent, the second of five categorised climbs that featured in the 197km run from King City. From there he defied the odds and kept his head down as companions up the road with him alternated.
The main bunch had come within seconds of catching the race leaders on the penultimate climb about 15km from the finish but lost touch. Instead, Bennett joined Skujins and the pair persevered together until the descent to the finish.
“I knew that if I didn’t work it wasn’t going to stay away at all so I gave it everything,” Bennett said. “It clearly hurt me in the end going so deep but I’m glad I did and I’m glad both of us stayed away. Second is better than nothing, and there are more days of the race.”
The outcome of the race was somewhat of a surprise to Skujins, who usurped pre-stage favourites in Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe) and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors).
“I was expecting someone to take a flyer and blow through us at any moment. The only time I really realised it [victory] was at the very top of the Corkscrew,” he said.
Stage one winner Gaviria suffered an untimely mechanical with about 6.5km remaining.
“It was a hard finish but I had bad luck with one small crash in the climb and after in the last, long climb a flat tyre. That’s cycling,” he said. “I’m happy with the performance and the race continues. The next sprint is easier, more flat and we have a strong team.”
Meanwhile, Ewan was left to languish what might have been if the main group had been more concerted.
“The chase never really got organised cohesively, but I am pleased that I went so well on the climbs in that group with Adam [Yates],” Ewan said. “After a super-fast run down to the line it was pleasing to win the sprint for third, but the stage win is eluding me here so far and that’s quite frustrating.”
The Amgen Tour of California continues tomorrow with a decisive 34.7km flat time trial, which may shake the general classification.