Michael Woods (EF-Drapac) will bring the curtain down on an emotional but hugely successful 2018 season at Il Lombardia on Saturday, hoping his end-of-season form and proven affinity with teammate Rigoberto Urán can result in victory in the final monument of the year.
Woods emotionally revealed that he and his wife lost their son in a stillbirth after winning a stage at the Vuelta a España and has endured a rollercoaster year of success in the saddle but also deep personal grief.
He has used his cycling cathartically, to help overcome his loss, and showed his determination and true ability at the World Championships in Innsbruck where he finished third behind Alejandro Valverde and Romain Bardet.
Cramps stopped Woods going shoulder-to-shoulder against Valverde in the Innsbruck sprint but he is ready for one final shot at victory before ending his season.
"It’s my last race of the season but I'm really excited and really keen. I’m happy to be ending this season like that and not blown out," Woods told Cyclingnews on Friday morning before the EF Education First-Drapac riders headed out for a short training ride around Bergamo and a coffee stop just 24 hours before Il Lombardia.
"Racing is so hard to predict because there are so many tangibles but I feel if I continue to race as I have this past month, then I can be in contention to win. With Rigo there as well, let's hope that we can help set each other up for victory."
Woods and Urán both rode the Vuelta and have created a quality double act. They can count on support from Joe Dombrowski, Simon Clarke and Daniel Martínez in the US team’s line-up for Il Lombardia.
This year’s stand out contenders for Il Lombardia include Valverde (Movistar), Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). Both Nibali and Pinot have warned about the combined strength of Woods and Urán.
"It’s an honour to hear our rivals say that. The fact that Rigo and I are on the same level fitness-wise as Pinot, Nibali, Valverde and Bardet, means there’s only fractions and fractions of a difference in that group. The fact that we’re in the same team makes a big difference for us," Woods suggested.
"It’s really nice racing with Rigo; I think you’ve seen that in the last two races we’ve done. We’re playing off each other really well. Unfortunately I really messed up my sprint at the Tre Valli Varesine and was only fourth. While if De Marchi had not been up the road at the Giro dell’Emilia, then Rigo would have won."
Woods and Urán did not ride Milan-Turin or Gran Piemonte on Wednesday and Thursday. Instead, they stayed with teammate Simon Clarke, who lives in Varese, and did a final Il Lombardia reconnaissance ride and recovered for the final monument of the season.
Woods rode Il Lombardia in 2016 when the race started in Como and ended in Bergamo. This year’s 241km route heads in the opposite direction, with the final 80km climbing the Madonna del Ghisallo, the steep Colma di Sormano and then the 9.7 per cent Civiglio. The twisting descents can be as big of a factor as the climbs, while a landslide has sparked a change in the final kilometres overlooking Como. The riders will now climb the easier and more gradual Monte Olimpino climb instead of the steep, twisting San Fermo della Battaglia climb.
Woods' description of the Il Lombardia course is succinct.
"It’s hard," he said with a pause for emphasis.
"Those last two climbs are super challenging and the nature of the race and the race distance will eliminate a lot of guys .I think it’s going to come down to a small group and in an ideal world both Rigo and I will be there.
“I rode Lombardia two years ago, it was the first monument I finished. It finished in Bergamo that time. I actually made the front group on the second last climb but got dropped on the descent. My skill-set wasn’t great then, I was particularly terrible in the rain.
"My coach believes you need to ride five or so Monuments to get the hang of them. This will be my fifth and, after my second place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the World Championships, I’ve really started to understand what’s needed to win. This time around I feel a lot more confident."