Michael Woods’ two late-season achievements came with help from others. In one case, a director found a meaningful phrase, its power coming out of tragedy. In the other, a diligent planner used his logistical wizardry.
Early in Stage 17 of this year’s Vuelta a España, in an EF Education First Drapac presented by Cannondale car, Juanma Garate told team mechanic Luis Lamas that he had certain line ready, the right phrase. Garate, the team’s sport director, was thinking of the stage’s finale: the steep Alto del Balcón de Bizkaia, a 7.3-km climb with an average grade of 9.7 per cent with some ramps hitting 24 per cent. It could be perfect for Michael Woods. If Woods was there at the end of the stage fighting for the win, Garate knew what he’d say to his rider over race radio to push and inspire him toward the finish line.
Woods’ teammate Simon Clarke made sure the former-runner-turned-worldtour-climber was in a good position for the Balcón de Bizkaia. Then it was up to Woods to beat Dylan Teuns of bmc Racing, David de la Cruz from Team Sky and Bora-hansgrohe’s Rafał Majka. Woods could barely see because of the fog. He followed a move by Teuns. Woods assumed by the force of the Belgian rider’s attack that they only had 200 m to go, maybe fewer. “I caught him, came over top of him and realized he was cracked,” Woods said of Teuns. “I thought, This is it, I’m going to hold on for the win. I looked up and saw a sign: 500 m.” Woods would still have to suffer for at least two more minutes.
Garate came on race radio and said to Woods, “Twenty seconds left. You have to hold on for 20 more seconds.” Those seconds passed and Woods still couldn’t see the 300-m-to-go sign as the other riders still fought hard behind. “You’re living the dream. You’re living the dream,” Garate yelled in Woods’ ear. Then, Garate said the line, “Do it for your family!”
In the months before the Vuelta, Woods’ father-in-law passed away. Later, his wife, Elly, who was 37 weeks into her pregnancy, gave birth to a stillborn boy. They named their son Hunter. Out the of tragedy, Woods wanted to do something to honour his son and his wife. Garate, who has been working closely with Woods since the Ottawa rider started with the team in 2016, knew Woods’ frame of mind well. “After Mike´s tragic thing happened, I spoke with him,” Garate said. “I knew how much energy he had inside. He worked really hard for this Vuelta thinking to do something really important here to dedicate it to his family. It was his way of overcoming those hard moments. The only thing I was worried about was when and how to try to channel all that energy he had at the right moment. The day arrived and we hit the right key at the right time.”
Garate’s line worked. Woods crossed the line atop Balcón de Bizkaia five seconds ahead of Teuns. The EF Drapac rider was just able to raise one arm in victory before he came to a stop on the steep road covered in fog. He put his head down on his bars.
“When he won,” Garate said, “I cried like a baby in the car.”
After the Vuelta, Woods went to Girona, Spain, for roughly two weeks of recovery before for the elite men’s road race at the world championships i n Innsbruck, Austria, at the end of September. That race, like the Vuelta stage, featured a difficult final incline. The Höttinger Höll climb, a 2.9 km stretch that averages 11.5 per cent and has one section at 28 per cent, would come after more than 200 km of hilly racing. On the day of the race, Woods got to the base of the the climb in an excellent position thanks the the work of teammates Antoine Duchesne and Hugo Houle, as well as Rob Britton who spent most of the day in the breakaway. As riders dropped from Woods’ group, he pushed the pace. Only Alejandro Valverde and Romain Bardet could say with him over the top. Before the event, Woods practised the final descent with Duchesne. His job was to try to drop Woods on the final run-in during those reconnaissance rides. Woods could stick with his teammate. On race day, he had no trouble sticking with Valverde and Bardet.
As the trio approached the finish line, with Tom Dumoulin in tow, Woods was feeling confident. Valverde was leading. Woods sensed that the Spanish rider was desperate to win. Valverde went with 300 m to go. Woods figured he could follow and come around for the victory. Everything seemed to be going to plan. “I felt like Neo in Thematrix,” said Woods, “like I was controlling everything and it was going exactly as I wanted it to.” Then, in
the final 150 m, Woods cramped. The disappointment of not winning was later replaced with satisfaction of taking bronze. He was proud to be on the podium seeing the Canadian flag rise up next to those of Spain and France, the maple leaf by the flags of two strong cycling nations.
While Woods’ race went according to plan on the day, preparation for that event had actually begun about a year before. Woods credits Kevin Field, Cycling Canada’s head of performance strategy, for laying the groundwork. “Kevin Field is the real architect of all of this,” Woods said of the director who’s worked with Symmetics, Spidertech and Rally Cycling. “He’s the guy who was talking to me more than a year ago about how we were going to medal at Innsbruck. He put together an amazing plan for me. Just like everything went to plan during the race, everything before the race went to plan exactly how Kevin said it would.”
Well before worlds, Field approached Jonathan Vaughters to convince the owner of EF Drapac that Woods should make the championships a goal. Then, Field consulted with Garate to devise a race strategy that would work for the rider. He was also in touch with Houle, Duchesne and Britton. Then, there was the logistics for worlds. Field wrangled a car from Rally Cycling and one from Groupama – fdj. He got his riders access to the Boels-dolmans bus. Field’s work not only helped Woods, but other Canadian riders: Simone Boilard who took bronze in the junior women’s road race; Leah Kirchmann who was fourth in the elite women’s time trial; and Karol-ann Canuel, who rode to sixth in the elite women’s road race.
“All the things Kevin did contributed to making me feel like I was just doing another Worldtour race. We’re spoiled in the Worldtour,” Woods joked. “You can forget all the stuff people do for you.” When Woods goes to races where he doesn’t have his regular support, he brings a list so he remembers to do all the little things, such as picking up his race numbers. He didn’t need that list at worlds. “Everything was taken care of, and it was lovely,” he said. “It really does make a difference on your performance because you’re not stressed, your not anxious. You’re mind isn’t racing on things you have to do. It’s just thinking, How can I win this race?”
“I felt like Neo in Thematrix, like I was controlling everything and it was going exactly as I wanted it to.”