Michael Woods (EF Education First) won less than he had hoped during the 2019 season, but true to character, he tried to enjoy every moment of it, savouring the times when he raced aggressively and was close to victory, and also the more disappointing days when he had to use his mental strength to make up for physical pain.
Woods bookended his long season with a win at the Herald Sun Tour in Australia in January and at Milano-Turin in Italy in October. In between, he peaked for the Ardennes Classics and finished fifth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege after trying to go with eventual winner Jakob Fuglsang, he made his debut at the Tour de France and kept racing through the Japan Cup where he was outsmarted by Il Lombardia winner Bauke Mollema and finished second.
As he tells Cyclingnews, the victories were few but the emotions of a full season were many. And in 2020 he will target the Tokyo Olympic Games road race after riding the Tour de France. He has already bought his plane ticket for the Sunday night flight from Paris to Tokyo.
Cyclingnews: How do you look back at your season? Are you satisfied?
Michael Woods: I admit I was expecting a bit more from my season. I didn't have a bad season, I was super consistent, every race I rode I was a contender. I had top tens in the first four stage races I rode but I didn't crack the wins I wanted. I won a stage at the Herald Sun Tour and Milano-Torino at the end of the season but they weren't at WorldTour level, even if I beat Valverde in Italy and beat Richie Porte during the Australia summer, which is never an easy task. I came close several times, including at Liege-Bastogne-Liege when I didn't quite have the legs to go with Jakob Fuglsang when he smashed it. It's been a bunch of near misses and 'almosts' this season but I lacked that big win.
It was the same story at the Tour de France. I was in the form of my life and thought the win would come there. I was sitting top 10 and felt poised to go for a stage win but then I broke my ribs in a crash on stage 11. I made it to Paris, which was great, but I was riding to survive. I guess I've been up there, I've seen what it takes to win but I didn't win like I did last year at the Vuelta or get the big result I did at the Innsbruck World Championships.
CN: Did not winning start to weigh on your shoulders and on your mind at any point?
MW: Not really. I felt I just didn't have a bit of luck on my side. I feel I rode better than I did in 2018 but my expectations are higher now. I'm happy with my season but I wanted a win. But no regrets. I raced actively, I animated races and that was my goal: to be a factor in the race and not sit back and wait. I want to win and win well; I think my job as a bike racer is to be an entertainer for the fans watching. Even if that style of racing has meant I've lost a couple of races in 2019 due to that, I'm okay with it.
CN: You made your Tour de France debut. Despite the pain of your ribs, where you able to enjoy it?
MW: It was my first time in the big show and I loved it. I felt like a true professional athlete at the Tour, that's why I enjoyed it the most. I liked the fact the world's eyes seemed on us. The Tour de France transcends cycling, particularly in Canada, where few people follow the rest of the season. Only the Tour de France is on major television and so that lifts it into a different dimension. After riding it I felt validated as an athlete. I just really liked how big it was and how epic it felt.
CN: Not many riders manage to see the pain and fatigue of the Tour de France in the same light.
MW: I get that but during the race and despite all the pain, there were so many moments when I felt that this is what a kid imagines pro cycling to be like; it's what they dream about. Other races don't have the same crowds along the roadside and the same wave of enthusiasm. The Tour de France is different to say a crap day in the middle of Paris-Nice when it's cold and pouring with rain. You get crap days at the Tour de France too but they're different. I think I'm conscious of that because I know I'm living a dream when I ride the Tour de France.
CW: Did those emotions help you handle the pain?
MW: Certainly. With my rib injury, if it had been any other race, I'd have dropped out. But you don't quit the Tour, because of the scale of it all and what it means to you the rider and everyone else. I had to finish. I also had the extra motivation on survival after speaking to Lachlan Morton. He'd just finished GBDuro event and that was a total mind game for him. He rode for 36 hours straight at one point and realised that the mind controls the body. Thinking that way was a useful tool for me during the Tour.
CN: What was it like to ride into Paris for the first time?
MW: Really special. My whole family was there and so it meant even more, finishing my first Tour. I think I'm fortunate because I don't take moments like that for granted in cycling. I did when I was runner but I feel fortunate to have changed. I visited Paris and the Champs Elysees before I got into pro cycling and so I know how crazy it is at peak traffic hours. So to be standing there, basking in an amazing sunset with totally closed Champs Elysees, was a special moment of satisfaction.
The rollercoaster of having three peaks and doing it again 2020
CN: You started your 2019 season at the Tour Down Under in January and ended it at the Japan Cup late in October. Was it hard to have three peaks of form?
MW: That's why I'm happy with my year, despite the results. I had three peaks and didn't have any real troughs I had to fight to get out of. I was in decent shape for the Tour Down Under, won at the Herald Sun Tour and was then sixth overall at the Volta a Catalunya when I got back to Europe after a break. I got sick but still then showed up for the Ardennes and even get a top-10 overall at the Tour de Romandie. Then I built up for the Tour and raced San Sebastian right afterwards. I felt I was good at Quebec and Montreal and kept going right to the end of the season and the Japan Cup. I know I'm not going to be doing this forever, so I'm trying to enjoy every moment of it.
CN: What are your major goals for 2020?
MW: Tokyo is my big goal in 2020, so is the World Championships, with the Tour de France probably in there, too. I'll probably have three peaks again: the Ardennes Classics, the Tour and Tokyo, then the Worlds in Switzerland.
Tokyo is now the biggest goal on my bucket list. I got into cycling because of the Olympics and my first wasn't too successful in any way, I just wanted to 'do' the Games. I kind of closed that circle by representing Canada in Rio in 2016. I didn't have a great race but was happy to have got there. Now I want to win it.
I've already booked a plane ticket that leaves Paris at 11:30 on the Sunday night after the [Tour de France] so I can arrive in Tokyo as soon as possible. The Olympic road race is just six days later. I certainly think it's still possible to finish the Tour and then fly to Tokyo. However, it is going to be a very tight turnaround, and certainly far more difficult to manage compared to the past two Olympics that involved significant travel from Europe (to Rio and Beijing) but had more time between the races.
I tried to replicate the travel by riding Il Lombardia and then the Japan Cup. Unfortunately, due to the huge typhoon in Japan, my original plans were derailed and I flew to Japan on the Wednesday. That didn't give me an accurate picture of how I would adapt after six days of jetlag. I did have good legs in the Japan Cup, but it is also hard to use sensations from a 140km race to get an idea of how you are going to feel at a monument kind of race. Saying that, I am still pretty confident that the guy that wins the Olympic games next year will have ridden the Tour.