“Don’t put barriers on yourself,” said Charly Wegelius as he sat at a table in a boardroom in the heart of our team camp hotel. Charly was looking me straight in the eyes, as he laid out my plan for the year. “You aren’t going to have the typical start of a neo pro… We believe in your ability.” Seated around the rectangular table, along with Charly, were the five other DS’ that would be guiding me throughout my first season in the WorldTour with Cannondale Pro Cycling Team. They all sat, with laptops open, and heavily marked calendars and notebooks at their sides. I sat at the head of the table, and as Charly began to outline my plan for the season, all I could think was “don’t fuck this up man, be cool, Mike, don’t look like a dumbass, just be cool.”
For the better part of the past four years I had been trying to impress the six men that were now staring at me. They all looked at me, as if taking stock of this weird looking Canadian guy that Jonathan Vaughters had just hired. To say it was intimidating would be an understatement, and I felt like I was that guy from Office Space pitching the Jump-to-conclusions mat on Dragon’s Den. I was sure, that at any moment one of them was going to start breaking into laughter, and tell me that the contract that I had just signed was actually just an elaborate joke.
However, no such thing happened, and as I exited the room my head was spinning from the high altitude of Aspen, the copious drinks I had the night before, and the news that these guys actually expected me to get results right off the bat, at the first WorldTour race of the season; Tour Down Under.
Tour Down Under (TDU) is a far cry from racing in Europe. There are no major transfers, you stay in one very nice hotel, the stages are short, the roads are wide and relatively safe and the food is good. Really the entire thing felt like an all-inclusive trip from Sunwing with a bike race thrown in as one of those add-on features - like a booze cruise; free wine, and native animal cuddling included. TDU is luxurious, and this is why JV, Charly, and the rest of the team, believed I would have a good shot at doing well. In many ways TDU is very similar to racing on the US domestic scene. All this being said though, I would still have to race guys like Simon Gerrans, Richie Porte, Sergio Henao and countless other thugs on a bike. Even if you put a race on a freeway, lined it with bouncy castles, and wrapped every rider in bubbly wrap, if I wanted to get a result, I still had to ride faster than some of the best damn riders in the world.
Hence the dizziness incurred after leaving my DS meeting in October. I mean I believed I was a decent bike rider, but I don’t think, at that point, I had yet encountered a bike team that matched and even exceed my belief in my abilities. It was exciting, it was inspiring, and it was fucking scary. Fortunately for me, aside from my team, my coach, and a few other individuals, the expectations on me were minimal. Odd makers had me slated at 125-1 for victory at TDU, so in the pre-race hoopla I flew quietly under the radar. I arrived in Adelaide in late December, and while other riders were doing interviews and riding under what seemed like a microscope, I quietly went about my training and enjoyed the awesome riding that the area had to offer.
Adelaide is sweet. The riding is great, their coffee game is on point, and the food scene is solid. Each morning I would wake up, go for a ride in the sweltering heat while my wife would go for a run and then head to the Adelaide Market and bring me back goodies. I went early in order to get used to the ridiculous temperatures (I left my Garmin out in the sun one day, and it hit 51 degrees Celsius). Conveniently, my early arrival was akin to that anecdote about boiling a live frog. If you throw the frog in a boiling pot, it jumps out, but, if you put it in there, and then gradually increase the heat, the poor sucker stays in (I have never actually done this. I am not an asshole. This it what I have heard; I am just the messenger on this one, so don’t get your panties in a knot and send me hate mail for the analogy).
When I arrived in Adelaide, the town was practically dead. Everybody was on holiday break, and the only whisper of a bike race came from the odd TDU poster plastered on a shop window. Elly and I spent time with friends in the area, checked out vineyards, and it really felt like a vacation. However, with each passing day the excitement would incrementally build, I would begin to see other pros on the road, and the sight of the odd poster would eventually grow to become a sprawling campus of race tents and bike booths in Victoria Square. My early arrival however, like the frog thrown in the cool pot, was great for mitigating the building pressure, and adapting to what would eventually be a race boiling over in excitement and anticipation.
Our pre-race team camp went great. Under the leadership of Fabrizio, the guys; Alberto Betiol, Moreno Moser, Ruben Zepuntke, Wouter Wippert, Clarke, Patrick Bevin and I, became a cohesive unit. We worked well together, had a bunch of laughs, and some solid training sessions. What struck me most about this group of young riders was the level of professionalism. Despite the youngest guy, Betiol, being only 22, each guy brought a true level of professionalism to the camp and the race. Each rider was well prepared, eager to follow instruction, but confident enough to make important decisions autonomously. This, in the end, is the big leagues and there is a reason why each rider was chosen to ride for this team. In the WorldTour, almost every guy has a palmares that would overshadow even the best domestic rider’s CV.
When it came time to race, the unit that we had created was solid. Clarke, who is basically a magician in the peloton, had us consistently relaxed, and surfing the front as a cohesive unit. Over the course of the first three races at TDU, I would learn more from Clarke about positioning than I had in my previous four seasons of racing, and when it came time for me to be at the front of the race on stage 3 at the Corkscrew climb, I found myself on the wheel of Richie Porte, with fresh legs, and a surge of adrenaline akin to Uma Thurman getting the shot after overdosing in Pulp Fiction.
I had hoped to be good, but man, something just clicked for me on the bike in stage 3. I was descending fast, I was floating at the front, and when the grade went up, I could easily follow. I had hoped for this for a long time, but to be actualizing it was still a surprise. I don’t think I felt my legs the entire time I went up the stage’s decisive climb, the Corkscrew, I was too stupefied. To be able to counter an attack by Porte, a guy I have watched so many times on Youtube make other riders look silly, while I suffered in my basement on a trainer, did not feel real. In many ways a part of me felt like I was still watching the race back home.
Imagining myself, watching that stage at home, on the trainer, with the winter winds of Ottawa slamming against my basement window, was probably the only way I was able to get over that climb, descend the way I did, and then have the presence of mind to find Simon Gerrans’ wheel for the sprint, crossing the line in his wake and earning my first podium at a WorldTour race. What I did, I did only because those were the decisions I would have made while sitting at home unaffected by the screaming fans, the riders slamming their bars against mine, and real fear of hitting the deck at 90km/h. It was an out-of-body experience, and its repercussions were almost immediate.
When I rolled up to the team car post race, everybody was smiling, there were cameras and journalists held at bay by our media lady, and my phone’s battery had died from the constant buzz of email, text, and social media notifications. I surprised a lot of people.
On stage 4, I went from being the guy who anonymously signed in at the start line, to doing interviews under an umbrella held by a podium girl, and being asked questions by Robbie McEwen. During the stage, riders were more generous in giving me space, and Porte even rolled up alongside me, and congratulated me on my performance. In one day, I had gone from a guy whose validity in the peloton was questionable, to being respected.
However, with this respect, and all of the messages of congratulations, and friends requests on Facebook, also came the realization that, from pretty much every race moving forward, the absence of pressure, the major advantage of anonymity, would be forever replaced by expectation. As I lined up to start of the queen stage of TDU, stage 5, I could feel that pressure. It was pretty fitting that Queen & David Bowie’s Under Pressure was literally playing on the loud speakers as I rolled to the start. If that moment were a music video, I wouldn’t have scored it with any other song.
Being in this position, on a smaller scale last season, when I took yellow at Tour of Utah, was something I drew from going into stage 5. In Utah, I had surprised a lot of people, but in their excitement, and mine, I got too caught up, and instead of focusing on the next stage and recovering, I spent the entire night tossing and turning in my bed, and looking at my phone. In the stages after I became apathetic, and my performance, and decisions following that success, were hindered.
This time round, I was pleased with my performance on stage 3, but I shelved that moment, and my phone, and placed all of my attention on repeating what I had just done on stage 5.
I didn’t get overwhelmed when I knew that my teammate, Moser, a guy who has won Strade Bianche and Tour of Poland, was pulling on the front of the race in order for me to succeed, and I didn’t get flustered, when all of my teammates, all extremely successful riders in their own right, looked at me and expected success. Instead, I just focused on being on Clarke’s wheel going into that last climb.
Following Clarke again on this stage, I would find myself seated perfectly in the draft on the early slopes of Willunga Hill (the race’s ultimate climb). When several riders attacked, I didn’t panic, I simply waited, and when Porte shot off the front with just over a kilometre left in the race, I followed. Porte, however, was just too strong. In what was my biggest mistake on the day, I tried to pace my bridge up to Porte, instead of making a bigger effort to get in his draft early, and in doing so I gave Sergio Henao shelter from the wind. When I cracked, Henao shot around me, and grabbed Porte’s wheel. This mistake cost me a shot at finishing second to Porte, and a podium in the GC. However, my performance would land me a fifth place overall in the GC and my second podium of the week.
Now, as I sit here, in Girona, Spain, after a 26-hour flight, losing my luggage, renting an apartment, and trying to sort out my life here in Europe, I am pretty excited. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about that error I made on stage 5, and, had I not made it, I might be sitting here a bit less motivated, and a bit more worried that the room for improvement was that much smaller. Instead, I know, there is a bit more juice I can squeeze out of this lemon.
Up next Vuelta Catalunya.
Canada's Michael Woods is a former middle-distance runner turned road cyclist and he races for the US WorldTour outfit Cannondale Pro Cycling. He proved his climbing ability on the world-class stage in February 2015 when he rode into a fifth place during the queen stage 4 of the Volta ao Algarve in Malhão behind stage winner Richie Porte, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski, Jon Izzagire and Geraint Thomas. You can follow his blogs on Cyclingnews during the 2016 season, his first year on the WorldTour, on his website: rustywoodscycling.com, and on Twitter: @rusty_woods.