Michael Woods endured a year of contrasting emotions in 2018, achieving his best results as a rider but also mourning the loss of his son after his wife had a stillbirth 37 weeks into pregnancy. The Canadian understandably kept his personal suffering hidden until he won stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana, only then revealing what he and his wife, Elly, had been through.
Woods used his love for cycling and his victory at the Vuelta to help overcome his loss. He spent precious time with family and friends before travelling to the World Championships in Innsbruck, where he again showed his true character and huge talent by taking third place after breaking away with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale).
Woods has developed rapidly since stepping up to the WorldTour level in 2016 with Jonathan Vaughters' programme at Cannondale and then EF Education First-Drapac. He was convinced he could win the world title after Valverde started the sprint early. Cramps stopped him from touching the rainbow, but his disappointment soon turned to joy as he realised what he had overcome and achieved in just a few months.
“2018 is a year I’ll cherish, but also one I’ll cry about in the years to come,” Woods tells Cyclingnews in an intimate and emotional end-of-season interview. "I feel like I’ve lived a decade in a year. I feel an older man and I’m far more experienced. I’ve really ‘lived’ this year, so much has happened."
Cyclingnews: What happened in your private life was intertwined with your public racing career. Did that somehow help you or perhaps make it harder?
Michal Woods: It was definitely a double-edged sword. The two parts of me help each other but also combined against each other.
Mourning my son made me put my life into perspective. It’s rare in life to see change, because you’re always evolving, your changes happen over five or 10 years and are not discernible. But, losing my son was something that changed me dramatically. I look back now and I was a distinctly different person before he passed away. My priorities shifted afterwards.
My loss forced me to put things into a better perspective and made me more motivated to honour him and to try to change the momentum of our year. I was mourning and I was depressed. But I was fortunate in that moment to have the bike because I channelled my energy into training. I don’t think I’ve ever trained as hard as I did after my son’s death. Both my wife and I did a lot of activities as a form of catharsis, to help the grieving process. It definitely helped.
At the same time, after I crashed at the Tour of Utah in early August, I did go to a darker place because I’d invested so much in trying to honour him and do something to inspire my wife. I felt a lot of pressure; I didn’t know how else to ameliorate. Fortunately, things came back around at the Vuelta a Espana.
CN: Everyone was moved when you revealed you’d lost your son. It was raw, human emotion after an incredible performance on the bike. What can you remember from that moment?
MW: Winning was the highest high I’ve ever experienced by far.
I didn’t plan on making a speech after the stage or even mentioning the loss of my son. But, because my directeur sportif Juanma (Juan Manuel Gárate), kept telling over the radio: ‘Do it for your family!’ That really did drive me to the line and enabled me to win. It made it feel that much more significant,and I think that’s why I was able to win. The release after was incredible.
The first month after we lost Hunter was tough, but I didn’t cry that much, and I felt things were coming along thanks to racing and training hard. But man, after that win, after I spoke to Juanma, I just started balling. It was a massive rush of emotion that I hadn’t felt for a long time. I cried everyday after that for a week, again thinking about Hunter, thinking about how excited we’d been to have the little fella in our lives.
CN: What reaction did you get after revealing the loss of your son?
MW: It was beautiful. It was overwhelming too. So many people messaged me about losing people in their lives, and that also affected me. I hadn’t really lost anybody before; I’d been very fortunate, but also not able to empathise with loss. Now I’m far more empathetic. Before when people asked how I was, I always said, ‘Great,’ and asked myself why other people didn’t feel the same. Now I can understand and relate when someone admits they’re not feeling great.
With people telling me their stories, it has made me far more understanding and made me feel fortunate to have people who love me and say wonderful things about me. I’m so grateful to my family, and especially my wife Elly.
Michael Woods points to the heavens after winning stage 17 at the Vuelta a Espana
The disappointment and emotion of Worlds
Woods finished the Vuelta a Espana in Madrid but refused to end his season, despite everything he had been through. The tough World Championships in Innsbruck had been an objective for more than a year, planned with Canadian road programme manager Kevin Field, his coach Paulo Saldanha and his three teammates in the Canadian team, Hugo Houle, Rob Britton and Antoine Duchesne.
CN: Talk us through your World Championships. You were clearly on form but were perhaps overlooked as a major contender.
MW: Worlds was a year-long project. I’d talked to Kevin over 12 months ago about how to win a medal at worlds. And my win in the Vuelta only gave me even more motivation for worlds. My family also came to Europe, including my nephew, who was born a month after we lost our guy. I was really keen to meet him and they landed the day I won the stage in the Vuelta. They helped me stay relaxed and happy going into worlds.
Because I had such good form and because I now have good perspective in the races, I was able to sit back and just let it happen on the day. My game plan after working with Juanma, Kevin Field and my coach, was to focus on the French and not get overwhelmed by any other moves. My reference points were France and especially Alaphilippe, and then Valverde. So I didn’t freak out in the final big lap. I saw Valgren and others attack, but I kept my reference points and then it played out as we predicted.
That’s what made it a surreal moment when we came into the Höll climb. After the recon ride we’d said that I could win if I was in the top five at the bottom of the climb. On the day I had to pinch myself when I lined up behind Pinot, Bardet and Alaphilippe. It seemed like a cycling video game coming to life. It seemed too good to be true. It felt like all the stars were aligning.
In the past when those moments happened, I’ve got too excited and messed up because there are so many tangibles in a bike race. I was often like the dog that got the squirrel and didn’t know what do. This time I was able to stay calm and stay cool. In the recon I did a four-minute effort on the final climb, and I figured that if I could do that again in the race, there wouldn’t be many guys who could follow me. It was a perfect climb for me because I could ride out of the saddle and there was no drafting or fighting to hold position. When we got to the crunch point of the climb, there were only five guys left: Valverde, Moscon and the three French guys, so I was ready to do the same four-minute effort.
I know that if I can stand on a climb I’m confident of my ability. That comes from my past ability as a runner. Four-minute efforts were my speciality, and if I can stand, it puts me in that upright running position and I can probably suffer more than most guys. Of course running in no way prepares you mentality for a seven-hour race. That’s been the most difficult thing for me, learning to endure all the obstacles and all the shit that comes along during a long race. It’s taken time and riding a number of monuments to get that point.
CN: We saw you immediately after the finish line and you seemed angry that you hadn’t won; you admitted to your soigneur that you had cramped in the sprint. He was so happy for you but you were initially disappointed.
MW: We were at different ends of the emotional spectrum after the finish. I couldn’t believe I’d f*cked it up. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t won. John, who is Canadian and also a soigneur at EF Education First-Drapac, couldn’t believe I was up there. He was genuinely happy for me, but I really thought I was going to win and was disappointed to have lost.
Valverde started sprinting with 300 metres to go, and I was right on his wheel and telling myself I was going to beat him. Then as I started to come around, I cramped up. It was due to electrolyte deficiency. I missed a couple of bottles on the last climb and it cost me.
I honestly wasn’t happy with the bronze medal for the first five minutes. I started to transition to be thrilled when I saw my coach at the finish line. He was the guy who told me to quit my job five years ago and said that he’d sort out funding so I could race. We had these dreams that he’d be there at Worlds or the Olympic Games and they came true. How could I not be happy? My family was there too, so too was Kevin Field, who always had faith in me, and Steve Bauer - the only other Canadian to medal at the men’s World Championships.
Standing on the podium and seeing the Canadian flag rise alongside those of cycling powerhouses like Spain and France just gave me goose bumps. It took me back to watching sports as a kid. I watched Donovan Bailey dominate the 100 metres in the Olympic Games and I felt I was part of that. I thought maybe there’s a kid like me back home now doing the same thing watching me. That made me realise it was awesome.
I didn’t sleep that night; my eyes were wide open as the dark turned to day. Canadians don’t really understand cycling, but if I say I was third in the World Championships, they’d think I’m the third best in the world. I’m not going to correct them on that. That makes it special.
Michael Woods attacks on the final climb at Worlds
Rookie no more
Woods turned 32 a few days after the World Championships but is still a neophyte as a WorldTour racer. He first tried his hand in Europe with the Amore & Vita Continental team in early 2014 but returned to North America after just a few months. He joined the 5-Hour Energy team and then moved to Optum, where he emerged by winning a stage and finishing second overall at the 2015 Tour of Utah. He stepped up to the WorldTour level with Cannondale in 2016 and quickly showed his potential with two third places at the Tour Down Under.
In 2017, Woods rode the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, finishing seventh in the Spanish Grand Tour. He did the same this season, despite his personal loss, also finishing an impressive second in Liege-Bastogne-Liege in the spring.
CN: Your career is following a steep learning curve, but after your success this year, do your teammates still affectionately call you a rookie?
MW: Lawson Craddock and Alex Howes still call me ‘The Rook’ and I like it. I still have a bit of imposter syndrome when I’m in the big races. I don’t feel like I deserve being there.
I still make mistakes, but I’m getting to the point I’m understanding bike racing, even if I have so much more to learn. That’s what makes me excited about the years ahead. I’m happy with my results this season, but I still feel I’m on a steep learning curve. There’s a lot of room to develop further. I believe in progression as an individual, and still feeling I have four or five years where I can grow and develop further is really exciting for me.
CN: What are your goals for the future? Grand Tours and/or the Classics?
MW: I don’t think they’re exclusive. There are some riders who can do well in both, and I’d love to be one of them. I don’t think I’m as talented as, say Valverde or Froome and Dumoulin, especially in time trials, but I think I can improve big time.
I’d like to continue to race GC in the Grand Tours, but I also want to target the Ardennes Classics and the Italian Classics. I love them.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege is such a cool race. I didn’t understand the history of European racing at first, but when you race it, you can feel it all, even riding through the war zones of the Ardennes forest or the industrial areas. It’s a cool, badass Classic. You have to be a good all-round bike rider to win it. You have to be strong and be able to suffer to win it, but also smart, be a good bike handler and adept. I like all of that.
Romain Bardet, Alejandro Valverde and Michael Woods on the Worlds podium
An opinion on Valverde
CN: You mention Valverde, who beat you in the World Championships at the age of 38. He described Cyclingnews as clueless for daring to ask him about his involvement in Operacion Puerto and if he should speak out about doping because as world champion he is a role model and flag-bearer for the sport. What’s your opinion on that and on Valverde?
MW: I think it was a fair question. I didn’t appreciate him saying that those who ask about Operacion Puerto are clueless. I don’t think that’s a fair statement. I’ll admit it’s hard for me to judge a guy who doped back in that era. Because if you are 18 or 19 and come into a sport where its so saturated with doping, where your heroes are doping and telling you this is the way to do something, I don’t know, if in that situation and 18, if I’d be enough of a hero to say no.
I obviously know now that I wouldn’t dope. I was older and confident enough to be able to say no.
Of course, what they did was wrong. Regardless of the situation, it was wrong. And I think ignoring that and brushing it off sends the wrong message to kids growing up in the sport.
It’s like saying, "Winning is what matters most." To me it doesn’t. I think winning is awesome, but the message I want to send to kids getting into the sport and to people in general, is: Being a good person is what matters most. And I’m not going to do that at the expense of trying to win.
It’s not my responsibility to tell someone how to live their life, but I think it’d be nice if there’s more transparency in cycling, and whoever is world champion can help tackle that.