Canada's Michael Woods is making a name for himself as a world-class climber, and his latest exploits earned him a bronze medal in the elite men's race at the 2018 UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck on Sunday.
"I was confident in the sprint, but then I cramped super hard in the legs with about 150 metres to go," Woods told Cyclingnews after stepping off the podium. "It's disappointing because I was so close to winning."
Woods found a little extra kick on the steep slopes of the final Höttinger Höll ascent and made it over the top with eventual winner Alejandro Valverde (Spain) and Frenchman Romain Bardet. He said the three communicated with one another on the descent back into Innsbruck, and all decided to work together to stay ahead of any potential threats behind.
"The three of us were talking," Woods said. "When you have guys like Bardet and Valverde, they're champions, and they don't just sit up and sit back, they ride through. It was cool in that group because we all wanted to win and they certainly collaborated."
Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) was dropped on the climb but used his time trial skills to chase back on to the three leaders in the final kilometres of the men's 258.5km race.
The four riders played a tactical game in the final kilometre, with Valverde leading out the sprint and then securing his first world title in a career that has spanned two decades. Bardet crossed the line with the silver medal and Woods the bronze, while Dumoulin finished fourth. Woods said he hoped for a better placing but that he suffered from a cramp in his calf as they sprinted for the finish line.
"I was pretty confident in my sprint, especially when Alejandro started it, and I still thought that I had a good shot at coming around and winning," Woods said, who also noted that he wasn't entirely sure what medal place they were racing for because there was some confusion as to whether they caught all the early breakaway riders.
"We weren't sure, because we didn't have a lot of information," Woods said. "I didn't know if a guy was up the road. We caught a bunch of riders on the climb, and so it was hard to tell if we were going for bronze, silver or gold."
The Höll buzz
The elite men's race included an 84km loop from the Kufstein start to the Innsbruck circuits. They then raced seven laps of a 23.8km circuit, with each one featuring the 7.9km Igls climb, which averaged 5.7% with some 10% sections. On the last circuit, the men veered off onto the decisive 2.9km Höttinger Höll, with grades as steep as 25%.
"It was so exciting," Woods said. "The crowd was amazing on that climb. My ears were ringing, and I had a buzzing noise in my ear just because it was so loud. I told myself before the race to try and draw inspiration from that noise; the excitement and energy, and I did. I was drawing off of all of the excitement around me, and I got excited."
The climb was always expected to be the decisive point of the race. Woods capitalised off of his teammate Rob Britton's efforts in the day-long breakaway, but when the race came back together, he moved into position to face the final ascent with the other race favourites.
"The Höll climb was awesome, and it was tailor made for me," Woods said. "Especially for 800 metres at that grade, when I can stand on a grade like that, I'm one of the better climbers in the world. I felt super confident going into that climb. I had good legs, and I wanted to do something special."
He formed part of the winning move that initially included Valverde, Bardet and Gianni Moscon (Italy). Thanks to Woods' acceleration, Moscon lost contact on the steepest section near the top of the climb and wasn't able to recover enough to chase back on the descent.
"You're always surprised when you drop guys who are amazing riders," Woods said. "I think the big things is that when you're able to do that, you need to draw on that excitement and that surprise and feed off of that, use that adrenaline – relish in the moment."
Woods' bronze medal in the World Championships closes out a successful season that saw him take second places at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and in a stage of the Giro d'Italia. He went on to secure an emotional stage 17 win at the Vuelta a España two weeks ago and came into this Worlds as a contender for the rainbow jersey.
"I didn't feel liked a marked man today, but I certainly feel like I had more respect in the peloton, just based off of my results, the guys give me more room," Woods said.
He said that he is gaining more recognition as a world-class climber and that helped him in some of the bigger races and at this World Championships.
He admitted that the maple-leaf jersey of the Canadian national team hasn't been a key player in some of the more recent international men's road races, like at the World Championships, in the same way as dominant countries like Italy, Spain, Netherlands and France, and so his efforts this season gave his nation more visibility ahead of Innsbruck.
"It's tough because Canada is not known as a cycling powerhouse and so when you see teams like the Dutch and the French up front, it's hard to keep the position, and that's felt like the case for previous global races that I've done. But this year, I felt like I had some respect and I was able to hold position a lot better."