Michael Woods has embarked on what may be his last hurrah with Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies at the Tour of Alberta before he moves up to the WorldTour ranks with Cannondale-Garmin in 2016. The Canadian climber is hoping to thank his team for their support with a stage 4 victory atop Marmot Basin Ski Area, the second and final summit finish in Jasper National Park.
“I’m hoping that today is my day,” Woods told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 4 in Jasper. "Optum has been such a great team and their support has been crazy.”
Woods emerged out of a dwindled peloton on the first summit finish during the previous day’s stage 3 climb to Miette Hot Springs. His attack in the final kilometre was strong but short-lived, caught and passed by stage winner Tom-Jelte Slagter (Cannondale-Garmin), Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) and Sergey Lagutin (Katusha), but he managed to hang on for fifth place.
He arrived at the Tour of Alberta as one of the underdog favourites to win one of the two mountain stages and do well in the overall classification, especially after his recent success at last month's Tour of Utah, where he place second overall. His goal in making that final attack on Miette Road on Friday was to try and win the stage, but more importantly, to show that his newly inked contract with Cannondale-Garmin wasn’t based on luck.
“You have to take risks sometimes if you want to win, and I rolled the dice,” Woods told Cyclingnews. “I just signed a contract to go to the WorldTour and I want to prove that I belong there, and that it’s not just a fluke because of having a good race in Utah. I want to keep that momentum going.
“Not to discredit Utah, but from a GC perspective, Alberta is a tougher race. There are some real heavy-hitters. I want to race against the best guys in the world. That’s my goal in cycling. I want to see how I stack up against better climbers in the world.”
Following the six-day stage race, which started in Grande Prairie on Wednesday and concludes in Edmonton on Monday, he will join his national team at the Grands Prix Cyclistes in Quebec City and Montreal, and from there he is hoping to earn a place on the team for the World Championships in Richmond, Virginia.
Woods, who made his debut in professional cycling back in 2011, has spent the 2015 season under the tutelage of Optum Pro Cycling director Jonas Carney, who has helped many young North American riders start their careers at the top level of racing, including Chad Haga, David Veilleux, Ben King, Carter Jones and US road champion Matthew Busche.
During his time with Optum Pro Cycling this year, Woods has experienced success at the Volta ao Algarve, where he placed fifth on the stage 4 summit finish to Alto do Malhão. He was also second at the Philadelphia Cycling Classic, won the queen stage at the Tour of the Gila and most recently won a stage at the Tour of Utah, placing second overall to Cannondale-Garmin rider Joe Dombrowski.
“I’ve had a real fun time with the team; they are like a family, and we all get along great,” Woods said. “Jonas has been one of my biggest advocates in terms of talking to WorldTour teams. He considers it a feather in his cap if he can get a guy onto a WorldTour team, so he’s played a big role in that."
Woods is ranked second in the UCI America Tour, just 29 points away from Ecuador’s Bayron Guama de la Cruz, while Optum Pro Cycling is sitting third in the team classification. The Tour of Alberta is one of the last opportunities for both Woods and Optum Pro Cycling to make gains in the ranks.
“From a selfish perspective, I’m second in the America Tour right now, and if I finish second there than I can take over the lead in that, and that would be super cool. Just because I’ve signed with Cannondale doesn’t mean I’m putting my feet up and relaxing for the rest of the season.”
Woods noted that he and the team could decide to contest other UCI America Tour events if they are close to securing the top spot in the ranking. “In all likelihood, this is my last race with Optum, but we may do one later in the season if we need to lock up some points. That will be a last-minute effort if we feel like we may lose that title.”
Woods will go from the Tour of Alberta straight to the pair of WorldTour races on September 11 and 13 in Quebec City and Montreal, where he will race with the Canadian national team.