When I was 14, while sitting in my math class it dawned on me that I wasn't going to make the NHL. For the better part of 10 years I just assumed that playing left-wing for the Maple Leafs (I am now a reformed Senators fan) was my destiny. Being 5'6" and 150lbs, and a third liner on the weakest team in the eastern Ontario region, it did not take the guy Jonah Hill played in Moneyball to figure out I was not on the trajectory to be playing opposite Mats Sundin in the big leagues. However, being the dreamer that I am, it took me a lot longer than it should have, to realise that professional hockey was not going to be in my future.
I remember even a year earlier, my english teacher, Mr. Dewar (he's now a member of Canadian parliament), asked me after I turned in an essay well past its due date; "what's more important Mike; hockey or school?" The answer to both of us was blatantly obvious; I responded "hockey."
To realise, at 14, what had been my plan for the better part of 10 years, was not happening, was pretty devastating. A week later, I joined my high school track team, and decided, if it was not going to be hockey, I was going to be a pro-runner. In the span of two years, I grew three inches, and lost 15 pounds, and by grade 12, making a living as an athlete, looked more like destiny than a possibility.
The concept of destiny, however, is bullshit. If somebody tells you that you're destined for something, then they don't know what they're talking about. I was told by many people that I was destined to make money in running, and to do great things in that sport, but that, like my hockey career, never happened. So, when I started riding a bike, and even when people started to tell me that I had a shot at becoming a professional cyclist, my previous endeavours taught me, despite my foolish ambition, to at least be skeptical.
This time, it wasn't until the ink had dried, on the contract sitting in front of me, sent from Slipstream Sports, that I could finally accept that I would be riding in the WorldTour for 2016.
Signing with Cannondale-Garmin for 2016 ushered in the final part of my 2015 season, and also marked a major shift in my performance. To put it plainly, at my final few races of the season, I wasn't that good. For the last four years, I have been chasing after one singular goal; to make it to a WorldTour team. I broke a ton of bones, lost quarts of blood, sweated more that a fat man on a StairMaster, starved myself like Christian Bale did for the Machinist, and shed more tears than a pre-teen at a Bieber concert in pursuit of said goal. After winning a stage at Tour of Utah and taking yellow, winning a race in Europe, and signing with Garmin, I basically achieved everything I had set out to do in 2015, so to reassess and rekindle my motivation after that ink had dried, was, honestly, a struggle.
I am lucky enough to have been born with a solid aerobic capacity, but genetics are just the initiation fee for the country club that is the WorldTour. If you want to be anything more than a spectator at this level of racing you have to be 100 per cent committed in your diet, your preparation, and your focus.
I knew this going in to Tour of Alberta, and despite the temptations to pack it in for the remainder of the season, prior to the race, I managed to abstain from alcohol and treats, and put in some solid miles. Being a Canadian, and having this race on Canadian soil, I wanted to have a good race, and until its fourth stage, I did. On stage 3, on the final climb of the day, I attacked in the last 600 metres of the race, and went for the win. The move did not work, and I blew up hard and finished fifth on the day. However, I went for the win, and I was pleased with the attempt. I knew, if I had a performance like that on the following day, a top-three finish on the stage was certainly possible, and a top-five finish in the general classification was well within my grasp. But on stage 4, I just was not good. When we hit the flame rouge, and Adam Yates attacked, I had nothing. Maybe it was the false expectation that I would feel good and be able to respond to this attack that left me feeling like I had led in my legs, or maybe it was just the cumulative fatigue from the cold and the effort the day before, but all I could do was watch as Yates, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Bauke Mollema and others pulled away. I would fade over the final 500 metres to 10th overall, and that night at the dinner buffet, I had a few extra dinner rolls, and my first desserts of the week. This, for my season, was the beginning of the end.
My next race, GP Quebec, from my perspective, was only noteworthy for the eight thousand views I generated on Youtube. In what is probably the most awkward crash caught on camera for 2015, while reaching for a bottle with my right hand, my front wheel connected with an unforeseen pothole at 50+km/h. The impact sent my left hand off the bars, my shoulders landed squarely on the bars, and my nuts on the top-tube. Normally, lying down and curling into a fetal position is the best cure for an impact to the balls. I wasn't afforded this luxury, as what is worse than the nauseating sensation of getting sacked, is skidding along a road at 50km/h, so I fought the urge to puke, and tried to keep my bike perpendicular to the pavement. It felt like I wrestled with my bike for an hour in an effort to keep the rubber side down, and, according to my teammates Ryan Anderson and Rob Britton, I almost saved it, then I lost it, then I almost saved it again, then I lost it, then I am almost saved it, and then I simply ran out of real-estate, and hit the curb. I was crashing for so long, that much to my embarrassment, the cameraman on the motorbike had time to set up, and capture the final quarter of the crash.
Quebec is an awesome race, but this year, its potholes were particularly bad. When I crashed, I was already on my spare bike; an earlier pothole rendered my race bike useless, and while in the draft of my team car, I slammed into a final pothole that knocked my spare bike out of commission. It sucked, and I was forced to watch the remainder of the race from the comforts of our five-star hotel.
GP Montreal certainly went far better than Quebec, but, really, all I was in this race was a spectator. I did manage to finish in the front group, which, in some ways, was a solid accomplishment, as this was the hardest race I have done to date. For all of you wattage junkies out there, I weigh 64kg and my normalized power for 5 hours and 20 minutes was 315 watts. However, according to my Optum teammate Brad Huff, bragging about your normalized power is the equivalent of bragging about how big your wife said your penis was; the number is always bigger than reality.
The World Championships in Richmond, Virginia, was my final race of the 2015 season, and it followed the same theme as Montreal: I suffered for a very long period of time, and was pack fodder. Were it not for the fact that we, Canada, qualified six riders to this race, and, had a good shot at being a factor in this race, I would not have taken part. When I was first asked if I wanted to do the World Championships, it was in August, right after I had just had the biggest result of my career. After the Tour of Utah, I was so high, that my ambition, and my inner belief left me blind to reality. "Hell yeah," I said when asked about doing a hill climb challenge in October in Taiwan. "You know, that sounds like a good idea," I responded when told that I could do some epic stage race in the Caribbean in November. "I want to be there," I said, emphatically, when asked about doing the World Champs.
There was a point, in the week leading up to the World Championships, where I cursed at myself for being so naive. At the end of this season, I was more than ready for the season to be finished. However, I am glad I sacked up, and did the World Championships because, man, the USA does sports right. This race, from a spectator perspective, was probably the coolest race I have ever done. I couldn't believe the number of fans, and the energy that you would get from these fans. Hearing the crowd chant "USA, USA, USA" and knowing that Ben King, Taylor Phinney, and Tyler Farrar were, at separate points, at the front of the race, was cool - the Americans rode damn well - and to see people go so crazy for Peter Sagan, after his solo victory, was special. Having been on an American team this past season, I had people cheering my name at almost every section of the course - it was sick. This was my second World Championships, and when you compare this one, to the one in Ponferrada, it was a no contest. I mean, Ponferrada was pretty cool, but Virginia was the next level.
The only bright spot in my sea of mediocre performances over the final portion of the season came in the form of a small race sandwiched between Worlds and GP Montreal. Taking place in the heart of Maple Syrup country (the south west corner of Quebec), the Appalachian Classic, was literally and figuratively a sweet race. I managed to win my weight in the liquid gold, and now, as I take a few weeks off, and start to wrap my head around what will be likely the coolest and craziest year of my life, I am at least doing so, with a belly full of the good stuff.
Canada's Michael Woods is a former middle-distance runner turned road cyclist and he races for the US Continental outfit Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies. He recently signed a contract to race on the WorldTour with Cannondale-Garmin in 2016. You can follow his blogs on Cyclingnews, on his website: https://rustywoods.wordpress.com, and catch him on Twitter @rusty_woods.