Despite a breakout season with Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies in 2015, new Cannondale signing Michael Woods was one of the more unsung riders to make his debut with the team at the Tour Down Under in a line-up that also included Simon Clarke and Wouter Wippert.
On stage 3 of the race, however, the former runner Woods showed that he will be the Cannondale rider to watch in the coming days following his fine climb up the Corkscrew and his eventual third place finish behind Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Rohan Dennis (BMC).
“I came in as a bit of an unknown but talking to Charly Wegelius at team camp he told me going into this race: ‘Don’t put any barriers on yourself because we know your talent, we know your ability so we are going to put the guys behind you at this race,’” Woods said with his adrenalin still rushing at the team van. “The confidence they put in me has paid off, it’s pretty special.”
With speeds in the peloton reaching upwards of 90km/h on the run-in along the Gorge to the base of the Corkscrew, Woods explained that having safely negotiated the entry, he was ready to test himself on the 2.4km climb.
“The lead in was crazy, super fast descent, really technical, guys were banging bars all the way down,” he said. “I even almost went down at one point, taking another guy from Katusha. It was my fault, I just want to be at the front that bad and I think so did everyone else. When I made it to the front at the start of the climb, I knew the power I was putting out in training so I knew that if I was at the front I had a good shot of doing well.”
Once on the climb, Woods added that sports director Fabrizio Guidi kept him calm, issuing instructions for when to make his move.
“I talked with Fabrizio, who saw how well I was climbing and said, ‘Don’t be the first to move, wait till the last steep pitch’ and that’s what I did,” he said. “I felt good, I was able to respond to Porte’s surges so I decided to take the reins on the climb and see what would happen.
“The surge of adrenalin knowing that I was at the front and Phil Liggett doing commentary saying that I was there, hearing the chopper on top and everyone screaming my name. I watch that on TV on the trainer back home and fantasise about that and now it’s happening. It’s crazy.”
Asked if he was surprised to ride away from the likes of Porte and Pozzovivo, Woods said: “Very surprised, these are some of the best climbers in the world and I’ve watched them so many times on TV make everyone look silly, so to be able to put some time into them is crazy.”
Turning into the final finish straight having been swept up by the eight-man chase group on the approach to the finish in Campbelltown, Woods was second last wheel but quickly moved up the right hand side of the road jumping out from behind Gerrans to snare third.
“When I saw Gerrans, I wasn’t confident at all,” he said of his chances in the sprint finish. “He has some wheels on him so I knew we were all after Gerrans’ wheel there and racing for the minor placings in the sprint. That’s why I was trying to push the pace a bit with [Sergio] Henao on the flat but when you have guys like Dennis and Porte rolling hard to bring you back it’s not an easy task.”
With top-ten stage results at the Volta ao Algarve and Tour of California, a stage win and second on GC at the Tour of Utah along with tenth overall at the Tour of Alberta, Woods had a solid season of performances last season racing with Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies.
Woods’ result elevates the 29-year-old to fourth place on GC with Saturday’s queen stage up Willunga Hill set to decide the overall standings before Sunday’s Adelaide city criterium, with a podium position very much in reach. It would mark his best result yet since making to the move to cycling.
“I am very happy with where I am at with the goal of top five, knowing Willunga is going to be difficult. With the uphill finish and the way I am climbing, I think I have a good shot at moving even further up,” he said. “Tomorrow’s going to be another day as well, there’s a good chance of crosswinds so I am really going to have to rely on my guys throughout the day.”