King of the Hills: Toms Skujin interview
Toms Skuijn came to the Tour as a domestique for Trek- Segafredo but some opportunistic racing in week one landed him the polka dot jersey
It was thanks to Direct Energie that Toms Skujin ended up wearing the polka dot jersey through most of the first week. Skujin hadn’t had his eye on it at all – his aim in infiltrating the early break on the fifth day of the Tour was to win the stage. “It wasn’t something I planned or expected to happen. And definitely not for five days,” Skujin tells Procycling on the Tour’s first rest day.
The Latvian, who represents TrekSegafredo, was one of the most visible riders in the race during the opening stages. By picking up enough mountains points on stage 5, the lack of climbing points available on stages 7 through 9 all but guaranteed he would wear the polka dots all the way through to the end of the first mountain stage almost a week later.
Through the first week of the Tour, the breaks are often prefixed with the word ‘suicide’. On a flat stage in week one, the break is there for nothing more than giving the race a little shape and discipline, publicising some of the smaller teams’ sponsors and giving the commentators something to talk about. On the first three road stages of the Tour, the pattern held: small breaks of three or four riders went, representing the smallest teams in the race – Wanty-Groupe Gobert, Fortuneo- Samsic, Direct Energie, Cofidis – and were duly caught. However, stage 5 was different, with a larger, more ambitious break of seven riders. “I was planning to be in the break on day five because I thought it might be a good day for the break to succeed,” Skujin says.
However, Direct Energie had other ideas. They may have also hoped for the break to succeed, and with probably their two best riders in there, Sylvain Chavanel and Lilian Calmejane, should have been motivated to ride. One could try to set up the other for victory, while the five other riders in the break were on their own. But the French team seemed more interested in mountains points than in getting to the finish ahead of the peloton. Calmejane and Chavanel kept on attacking, which disrupted the rhythm and cohesion of the group. Eventually, Chavanel went away and rode ahead of the break by half a minute.
“Their tactics were off,” says Skujin . “It was seven pretty strong guys. They started playing around with us 100 kilometres from the line. That obviously doesn’t help the break succeed to get as far as it can. Then the Fortuneo guy [Elie Gesbert] crashed out while riding on the top tube, which is silly. That helped the break even less. I had to take the bull by the horns and get Chavanel back because we weren’t closing in on him; nobody else was going to do it. There were only four of us left and Edet [from Cofidis] stopped working, so the break wasn’t going anywhere. You need people to commit. As soon as there’s one person who is not committed, you’re thinking in the back of your head, even if we go to the line, he’s going to beat me. That’s what killed the break.”
It was only then that Skujin changed tack. “I thought, I might as well go for the climbers’ points.”
In the end it came down to a straight battle on the last two climbs between Skujin and Calmejane. The Frenchman won a middle mountain stage from an extremely high-quality break in 2017, so might have been the favourite to take the points, but Skujin knew otherwise. “I believe that Calmejane was not as strong as he was last year,” Skujin continues. “Maybe he’s missing something.”
In the end, Skujin ended the day on the same number of points as Chavanel but
took the jersey because of his better GC position. He then stole an extra point on the next day’s stage, just to make sure he’d keep the jersey. It meant five days in polka dots, and cycling fans were also treated to the incongruous sight of a rider in the KoM jersey doing domestique work on the front of the peloton in the cobbled stage.
Trek-Segafredo’s strategy at the Tour de France was initially twofold: support John Degenkolb on the cobbled stage and in the sprints; support Bauke Mollema in a GC challenge. Tackling the Tour with more than one focus necessarily makes it harder compared to the experience of teams with a single leader, though it does spread the risk. In Trek’s case, Degenkolb’s win on the cobbled stage justified everything, though Mollema’s GC challenge dried up early with a back injury and he was a visible but frustrated presence in the mountain breaks in the second half of the race.
Skujin felt the team had a good Tour, with a close-knit and motivated group of riders, though he has conflicting opinions on whether the move to eight-man teams was a good decision or not. “I was thinking about things on the days where there was one guy up the road and the racing was pretty boring,” he says. “I think if we had nine riders, that ninth guy in some teams would have been keen to go in the break and would have actually made the racing more exciting. I’m still on the fence about whether it’s the right call or not, even though for me, eight riders is better because the less riders to chase me down when I try to get in a break, the better.
“But bringing John for the sprints and also Jasper [Stuyven] who is very quick and did really well on the cobbles – I wouldn’t say that was a risk for our GC, because John is not a sprinter who is so egotistical. He will ride his heart out for Bauke. Even yesterday [stage 9], he was helping Bauke as well. For Bauke, having two guys who ride cobbles for breakfast ride for him was incredible. If something had happened that I couldn’t be there, or somebody else couldn’t be there, those guys would have taken care of him all the way to the line.”
At this point, Skujin is visibly emotional. Degenkolb’s win, his first really big win since he suffered bad injuries in an 2016 training camp incident in which a car was driven into a small group of riders with his old team, Giant, was one of the most popular of the Tour. It meant that the team had a successful race, in spite of the disappointment of Mollema’s GC challenge, and team spirit was high.
“The team is letting me do what I do best. I take care of Bauke and John and get into breakaways. In the bunch we surf the wheels with John and with Koen [De Kort],
I know that I can actually win for sure if I can get in a break - the safest way to win is actually not bring anybody to the line
we try to chase John down when we’re heading into the sprint. We call this ‘Chasing John’,and we tally the points up in the end – it’s our internal classification. We also play ‘Chasing Bauke’ but it’s actually harder – he can move around the peloton really well.”
Skujin ’s main role at the Tour may have been as a super domestique, but he’s been a reliable winner since even before he turned pro for Cannondale in 2016. He has five international wins – three Tour of California stages in 2015, 2016 and 2018, a stage of Settimana Coppi e Bartali last year and the Trofeo Lloseta-Andratx this January. His modus operandi is to get into a break, and then preferably break away from the break to win solo – four of his five victories have been taken in this way, with the fifth, in California in 2016, taken in a two-up sprint.
“My sprint is fine. I can outsprint guys no problem,” he says. “But I know that I can actually win for sure if I get in a break – the safest way to win is actually not bring anybody to the line.”
As he did with Calmejane in stage 5 of the Tour, Skujin likes to research his rivals and understand what is going on tactically when he tries to get in a break. “First of all, you don’t want to waste too much energy getting in the break, so you’ve got to read the race and know what teams and what riders would stay away. And then you see how the day goes.
“Some days might be a good break day – good parcours, perfect wind, but it just won’t happen, so you don’t waste your time. And you definitely have to have the legs – without the legs, all the tactics in the world will not help you.”
Lilian Calmejane would have to agree with Skujin on that.