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.

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