It would be difficult for Canadian sports fans not to have a soft spot for the Giro d’Italia. In 2012, Ryder Hesjedal claimed the country’s first, and only, Grand Tour victory there, in a triumph that acted as a beacon of inspiration for its cycling community. Six years on, it still does.
Back in 2012, for Ottawa-born rider Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac), Hesjedal’s three-week battle for pink with Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez was one of the first races Woods watched as he was getting into the sport. Fast forward six years and as Woods heads to the Giro d’Italia for the second time, following his breakthrough seventh place at the 2017 Vuelta a España and second place in Liège-Bastogne-Liege last week, the 31-year-old still draws inspiration from the events of May 2012.
In fact, at the 2018 Giro, Woods tells Cyclingnews that he would like to be “that guy that’s on the front, that people can cheer for back home, that Canadians can get excited about when they watch bike racing.”
“Because it was cool, as a Canadian back in 2012, being able to turn on the TV and see a guy like Ryder on the front. I’m sure that was the same in the 1990s with guys like Steve Bauer in contention for the win. Seeing them on the TV and winning makes it all seem less exotic and distant to a guy who’s back home watching the race and getting into the sport.”
Woods knows exactly what he’s talking about, given that was what happened to him, coming into cycling as a 20-something-year old, prior to becoming one of the oldest ever neo-pros, at 29 in 2016.
“I remember when Ryder won, it was a huge deal in Canada and it was right when I was starting to race. I didn’t really understand how big a race it was because I didn’t understand the sport as much as I do now. [But] last year, when I was at the Giro d’Italia presentation, and you see the list of guys who’ve won in the past, how big the race is, that it was the 100th edition last year, and you think about how this dude from Canada won it, it’s a pretty big deal.”
Breaking ground for Canada
As for his own chances of raising the bar on Hesjedal, Woods is realistic, recognising that he is several rungs down the ladder from realistically conceiving that. “The only way I can improve on that, personally, is to win myself, but that’s a tall task,” he argues. Rather, as Woods puts it, “I’d like to be a guy who’s consistently at the front of the race and not just a participant. Even at the Vuelta in 2017, I was starting to show glimpses of how I could get to the front of the race. I was up there with Froome and Contador on some of the shorter climbs.
“That was a nice step forward for me because I wasn’t hanging on for third or fourth or fifth. I was actually there, if that makes sense.”
Woods himself has huge grounds for renewed optimism after taking another breakthrough result, second in Liège Bastogne-Liège last week. His achievement equalled Canada’s best ever result in a Monument, when Steve Bauer took second in Paris-Roubaix back in 1990. It was also Canada’s first ever podium placing in La Doyenne, too.
But after hitting the heights in Belgium, Woods is keeping his feet on the ground about his chances in the Giro d’Italia, with his main goal remaining stage wins. The GC, whilst not forgotten, is somewhat less of an aim than it might have been had he not been sick this spring.
“I had a great day on Sunday, but I still want to focus on stages,” Woods says to Cyclingnews post-Liège-Bastogne-Liège. “There are several stages that favour my style as a racer and I just want to take the GC one day at a time.”
The general classification at the Giro d’Italia might have been a clearer goal had he not contracted rotavirus at the Tour of Abu Dhabi.
“It must have been something in the buffets because several riders got sick and it hit me really hard, I ended up going to hospital and losing a bunch of weight,” Woods told Cyclingnews before Liège. “My confidence took a bit of a knock, it was not a good situation and it took me a while to bounce back. At Catalunya, I was on my hands and knees and then in Pais Vasco. I started to get a bit more momentum.
“I’m not going to try and lose time in the Giro GC, but I don’t have the same expectations on myself as I did in the offseason.”
Yet, compared with this time last season, when Woods had not even ridden a single Grand Tour, the Canadian is streets ahead in terms of both results and race experience, despite the steepness of the learning curve.
“Going into the 2017 Giro, I had no expectations placed on my shoulders, maybe going after a stage win. That’s how we approached it, I came really close on stage six, I won from the group but the break managed to stay away.
“Still, I managed to set Pierre [Rolland] up for a win on stage 17, and that was really special. But the Giro was more a race that opened up my eyes to what I was capable of and how much deeper I was able to go. It set me up for the Vuelta.”
Now into his third Grand Tour, Woods has some benchmarks when it comes to rating this year’s Giro’s route. “[It’s] not as insanely difficult as last year, even if each Grand Tour is still hard. Mentally, dealing with such a long period of time and distance is always a challenge regardless of the course,” he says.
That said, when he flew directly from Liege to Italy last Monday for a last-minute recon of the Zoncolan climb, widely rated as the single most difficult climb of the entire race, he was suitably impressed by what he and the rest of the Giro peloton will be handling three weeks from now.
“[It’s] tough!” he tells Cyclingnews by email. “The only climb that I have encountered that is like it is the Angliru. The results on this stage are going to look more like the results from a triathlon than a bike race.”
EF Education First-Drapac ambitions will not just be centred on Woods at the Giro d’Italia. Sacha Modolo will be giving the American squad some serious firepower in the bunch sprints, whilst Hugh Carthy, also doing his second Giro, will be alongside Woods gunning for the climbing stages. “I think this year is going to be a really great one for him,” says Woods, who says having Carthy present will lower the pressure on himself in the mountains.
But, if there is one lesson he learned from last year’s Giro d’Italia, it is not to over-think things or wait for too long for your chance to come round. He cites the case of Pierre Rolland, winner of a spectacular Giro stage for the team last year and how the Frenchman’s attitude has underlined the benefits of “living the moment and not thinking of the future.”
“In the Giro last year, Pierre threw caution to the winds so many times. Like, I’d be watching him attack and think ‘how is he going to think of continuing on the next day? How is he going to conceptualise finishing?”
“Every day, I was venturing into the unknown so I was always afraid of not having something in reserve. But now I realise that you can’t be afraid what’s in the future, you just have to attack and be aggressive.”
For Canadian fans watching the Giro d’Italia back home, and maybe getting into cycling like Woods was in 2012, that attitude bodes more than well.