"We came here with a bit of a 'ragtag' team," said Brent Bookwalter to the media corp at the final press conference of the Tour of Utah (ToU). I was sitting beside Bookwalter when he said this about his team (BMC Racing), a team whose budget is well over 10 times that of Optum's, and that had one rider on it likely earning more than the entire combined salaries of Optum's 14-man roster. When I heard this line, all I could think was; "if his team is 'ragtag' then what does that make us?"
Over the past month, my teammates, Tom Soloday, Eric Young, Jesse Anthony, Pierrick Naud, Brad Huff, Scott Zwizanski and I, lived in a house perched above the town of Nederland, Colorado. Living at 8,500ft of altitude, we spent most of the day training, eating, and quoting lines from the movie Bronson; a biopic, introduced to us by Huff, about Britain's most violent prisoner. "Alright, he's had enough, get him out of here!" was yelled in a Cockney accent at every relative moment, and the movie's theme song was played on repeat (Glass Candy Digital Versicolor). Our training camp for "America's toughest stage race," was a blast, and, between sign sprints, we could be heard laughing from miles away. It was a great time in my life, and it brought our less than ‘ragtag’ group together.
Suffering on a bike, in the mountains of Colorado is one of the quickest ways to build bonds. So, we came to Utah with not the biggest budget, or the strongest riders on paper, but joined by Phil Gaimon, after his lonely training camp in Big Bear, California, we came to Tour of Utah like Charles Bronson would to one of the 120 prisons he called home, we came ready to stir shit up.
ToU itself, started under a cloud of controversy. During the team presentation, I was sitting with Gaimon and Naud, when we were joined by Phil's former teammate, and the two-time ToU winner Tom Danielson. Danielson, was chatty, in good spirits, and cracking jokes with Phil. At one point he turned to me, and said, "Dude, I have been looking at your Strava. You have been doing some epic rides." The fact that Danielson was looking at my Strava profile stunned me. After the month of training I had done in Colorado, I knew I was in shape to contend with the best climbers in the race, but I thought I was flying under the radar. I went to bed that night, thinking about the fact that Danielson, the race's favourite for the overall win, was keeping tabs on me. The next morning, I woke up to a text from my wife, Elly, saying; "Danielson tested positive."
It was a stunning moment, and one greeted by laughter from the likes of Eric Young, our star sprinter, and one of the most outspoken anti-dopers I have come to know. If you haven't read Phil Gaimon's recent piece on riding clean; out of principal Eric won't even take a Flintstones vitamin. For me, I just felt sad. With every positive test, and every doping scandal, for me at least, the beauty, the mysticism, and the heroics of sport are diminished. Every positive test, to me, feels like I am six years old and learning that there is no Santa Claus. Call me an eternal optimist, but I want to believe my fucking gifts under the tree were brought by a fat dude in a red suit, and the performances I watch were achieved credibly and ethically. I want to believe, and I think, so does everybody else.
Thanks to the work of many altruistic people in this sport, I have entered cycling in a time, where somebody who is clean, can make it to the top (10 years ago, the rise that I have had this past year, could not have been done naturally). So on the news of Danielson's positive, the team set out to try and drop down the chimney and lay some gifts under the tree.
Much like Tour of California earlier this season, our team did not get off to a great start at ToU. On stage 1, under cold and rainy conditions, a pothole claimed the wheel of Huff, and sent him along with Young and Soloday to the pavement. Soloday, would be flung so far by the crash that he was sent beyond the ditch running adjacent to the road, and his trek back to the pavement was so great that the entire race caravan passed by before he was back on course. Fortunately Soloday's absence from the bike race was eventually noticed, but the crash relegated two of our lead-out men to the gruppetto, and Young was forced to sprint for minor places, as a break was able to slip away in the final kilometres of the race.
Stages 2 and 3 saw Naud sneak into a break, and Phil and I make the front group of the race on both occasions, but again we were left far down on the results sheet. So we started stage 4 beginning to feel anxious about the final few days of the race. "This is our last chance for a sprint," said our director Jonas Carney, looking directly at Young, at the team meeting before the stage. When Naud and I pre-rode the final kilometres, we both agreed, Young was likely not going to be crossing the line first. With the final kilometres of the race meandering uphill, and Young being known as a pure sprinter, we thought his chances for victory were slim, however, throughout the 202km stage, every time I looked at Young, he looked more focused than Mr. Miyagi before punching a stack of boards: he was ready to smash.
The 165lbs Boulder boy, managed to claw his way over the big climb of the day, and when he came flying by me on the descent, I yelled "YOUNG GUN!!!!!!" and began to believe.
Man, did Young--and Jonas--make Naud and I feel stupid. Going into the finish, Young hit out from 400m and never looked back. His win was an emphatic one, and as a division 3 team racing against some of the top teams in the world, over the course of 400m, our race went from being a potential disaster, to the most successful race of the season. Young's win took the pressure off the rest of the team, and from that moment on, there was an energy that could be felt amongst the guys.
The next day, at a sponsor event prior to stage 5, the entire team was in great spirits, and through the heavy laughter of the crowd our Canadian director Eric Wohlberg recited haikus he had written for each rider. Originally, stage 5, an 87km circuit race through the streets of downtown Salt Lake City, was going to be another day for Young, however, when we pre-rode the course and hit the circuit’s finishing climb, Young came up to me and said, "This is your day Woodsy."
I came to Utah to test my climbing abilities, on stage 6 and 7, but, when Young, and then later Jonas, said that I was the guy for the day, I thought "fuck it, why not?" I had great legs, and, in what I can only describe, in retrospect, as an out-of-body experience, in the final kilometre of the stage, I managed to thread the needle between fading riders, and come from 30th wheel, to win the damn bike race and achieve what was my greatest athletic achievement to date. The gap I put into the second-place finisher, combined with the 10-second time bonus I got for the victory, put me in the yellow jersey, and for the first time in my cycling career, I was the "it" guy at a pro race. Cameras waited outside my team RV, people stood in anticipation of autographs, and wherever I walked, or rode, riders pretended they weren't looking at me. It was surreal, and throughout stage 6 riders came up to me, and congratulated me on my previous day's performance, even Fränk Schleck tapped me on the hip during the stage and said, "chapeau."
Unfortunately my time in yellow was limited. On stage 6, Joe Dombrowski, after wishing me luck going into the climb (a classy guy for sure), went on to dominate the field up Snowbird, putting 1:17 into me, the next fastest finisher. This, was a funny moment for me, as, up until stage 5, this second-place showing on stage 6 would have been my best result to date, and I would have been ecstatic, instead I was far from pleased to have been so soundly beaten, and to be giving up the yellow I had earned the day before.
Stage 7, the final day of ToU, was surprisingly the day I felt the best of the week. My legs were good, and I tried to do my best to take a crack at Joe's lead. However, when I realized that I was not capable of shaking him on the day's final climb, I decided to conserve for the finishing sprint, as I had been sprinting well all week. Despite coming over the top of the climb with the front group (and bringing back Rob Britton, the last man from the breakaway - I felt bad about this, as I was the one that led the charge to bring my fellow Canadian back) I managed to botch this sprint. My descending skills have never been better, however, as we began the descent, I got caught behind another rider, and by the time I had gotten around him, Bookwalter and Lachlan Norris had a large gap, that would only increase over the rest of the descent. This left me, coming into the final 300m of the race, sprinting for third. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t raced so hard for a third place (as I had already locked up a podium in the GC) but, the boys on my team had worked so hard for me all week, and with a potential point lead of the UCI Americas Tour on the line, I tried to take the final corner ahead of the other riders in the group.
I covered 711.5 miles of ToU without incident, but my desperate attempt to win the corner would prove to be my undoing. I lost my rear wheel, and high-sided with less than 500m remaining in the race. Fortunately, the crash was in the final 3km, and I was awarded the same time as the others in my group, and maintained my second position overall.
So, with a relatively unscathed body (I mean relative to my previous crash) and a relatively scathed ego, I crossed the line ending what has to have been my most successful ride on a bike. I may not have won, but I think I, along with my team, managed to lay a few presents under a few trees.
Canada's Michael Woods is a former middle-distance runner turned road cyclist and he races for the US Continental outfit Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies. You can follow his blogs on Cyclingnews during the 2015 season, on his website: https://rustywoods.wordpress.com, and catch him on Twitter @rusty_woods.