Michael Woods believes that performances in the peloton have gone up to another level in recent years but is convinced he has also stepped up to a point where he can still compete for victory in the hardest Classics, as well as stages in the Grand Tours.
The likeable Canadian racked up a series of prestigious fifth places throughout the 2021 season; at Liége-Bastogne-Liége, the Tour de Romandie, the Tour de Suisse and in the Olympic road race, but missed out on a big win.
With Chris Froome struggling to return from his 2019 crash injuries, Woods bravely stepped up to start the Tour de France as protected team leader for Israel Start-Up Nation. He was thrilled by the opportunity but crashed hard on stage 1, along with Froome, and lost nine minutes. He then targeted stage victories and the king of the mountains jersey, finishing third on the stage to Le Grand-Bornand and fifth on the stage to Quillan. He wore the polka-dot jersey for stage 15 to Andorra but by the end of that day had lost it to Wout Poels.
"It was all close but no cigars," Woods tells Cyclingnews during an exclusive interview.
"If I'd ridden like I'm doing now just three years ago, I think I'd have won 10 races. Performances in the peloton have gone to another level."
Woods is known for his transition from athletics to cycling at age 27, a much later arrival than most pro racers. He was the rookie in his early years at Cannondale-Drapac and EF Education-Nippo but he is now 35. Most of his top results have come in the past few years but it is getting harder.
"I've picked a really strong generation to race against," Woods jokes.
Woods and many in the sport have tried to understand why the level of racing and training has increased recently, why races are now more aggressive and how such a dominant new generation of young riders has emerged. Some have become openly suspicious while others, including Woods, have a more analytical opinion.
"It's due to watts, better training, race-craft and ability. The game is just more competitive," Woods says.
"I'm not old as a pro cyclist but the new generation of the last two or three years are phenomenal. We've seen Tadej Pogačar and Remco Evenepoel come onto the scene, Egan Bernal too, and then the likes of Julian Alaphilippe, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert have all emerged too. Other riders tell me they're putting out their best numbers but they're struggling to compete with those guys."
"I think COVID-19 added a new hunger to it all and changed the style of racing. We were initially racing every race as if it was the last. Now we know that's not the case but the aggressive style has held."
Woods does not think the sport has hit the peak of the current wave of development and aggressive racing, going into details that only a professional rider can reveal.
"There was a moment when guys weren't doping anymore but they didn't know how to train anymore, so results came from talent," he suggested.
"With the advent of Team Sky, then their big-budget rivals, Strava, Training Peaks and all these different things to monitor training; now you don't need to race or be at a training camp to get good. These days you can replicate races and monitor riders closely, using altitude as a significant boost to it all.
"Ten years ago you could fool your coach about riding for seven hours and they couldn't really check that. Now they can even live track you. That's all pushing the envelope and making everyone fitter, also at a younger age. That's all contributing to the level going higher."
Holding a career trajectory during a season of stress
Woods proved his athletic physiology as a runner and has always raced aggressively, hence his five top-ten placings at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and his eight career victories. He had hoped for better than his haul of fifth places and pats on the back on the Israel Start-Up Nation team bus post-race but he looks back on his 2021 season with satisfaction.
Moving from EF Education-Nippo to Israel Start-Up Nation could have been difficult but Woods insists he held his expected career trajectory.
"I think changing teams impacted me in a positive manner," he argued.
"I think I was on this trajectory with EF Education but coming over to ISN was easy and it felt like coming home because I joined up with my long-time coach Paulo Saldanha, team owner Sylvan Adams who I've known for years and other riders I've raced with too.
"For much of the season I felt a spring in my step, a lightness on the pedals when I got out of the saddle, so I enjoyed my racing. But it was also a super long season for a lot of reasons. There was a lot of stress too; some positive emotional stress but also cycling stress that built up month after month.
"The cycling stress was riding the Tour de France, the Olympics and doing it all with a new team. Then when I got home from Tokyo and the birth of my son was amazing and very emotional for us.
"Don't get me wrong, I have an amazing life and I feel very, very fortunate but there are life stressors that can fatigue you. My 2021 season is not a sad story, I'm just looking back at the emotions of the year."
The lessons learnt at the Tour de France
Woods had reason to be emotional about his racing. He had arguably his most consistent spring and was named as Israel Start-Up Nation's protected team leader for the Tour de France, pilling responsibility on his shoulders.
It was perhaps a surprise and fall-back strategy for Israel Start-Up Nation but Woods finished seventh in the 2017 Vuelta a Espana and was ready to seize the challenge after impressing at the Tour de Suisse.
Unfortunately destiny stepped in and his overall hopes disappeared in the stage 1 crash that left so many other riders battered and bruised and several minutes down.
"I did well at Romandie and at the Tour de Suisse, so we thought it was possible. We also had a new time trial bike and so thought I had a shot of finishing somewhere between fourth and eight in the GC. At the Tour I would have been happy with fifth place for sure..." he said.
"There was never the expectation that I could win the Tour. I just felt lucky to give it a go. Every kid when they're growing up wants to fight for overall victory in Paris. I've realised that experience now, even if it ended quickly."
Woods switched to stage hunting after his crash and wore the polka-dots for a day in the Pyrenees. However, the daily fight for the prestigious jersey also proved too much and he eventually quit the Tour de France before the final weekend to travel to Tokyo a few days earlier than planned.
The Tokyo Olympics was a major goal and created huge attention back in Canada but a medal proved to also be out of reach for Woods. He was part of the select chase group that sprinted for silver and bronze behind solo winner and gold medallist Richard Carapaz but he ultimately finished fifth at the Fuji International Speedway.
The day after he returned home his partner gave birth. He also helped save a local cyclist's life in Andorra, returning home covered in blood and in shock.
He loved becoming a father for a second time but was mentally and physically fatigued and only returned to racing at the Tour of Britain and Italian one-day Classics.
A big win in 2022
Woods has no regrets about any of his intense summer, especially starting the Tour de France with idea of targeting the overall classification.
"I hadn't raced the Tour like that before: all the expectation and excitement, the pain of the crash, the disappointment about losing time, then going up against high-level GC riders and basically sprinting for everything to limit. I was in a high level KOM hunt," he said looking back and acknowledging he had learnt a lesson.
"It made me realise not to target the GC at the Tour in the future. I've understood I don't have the full skillset to win it. I really hope that Chris Froome can get back to his level where he can be in that position in 2022 or that a young guy comes up in the team and we ride for him. I think I can win stages at the Tour and that's the best shot for me.
"In cycling you've got to compartmentalise failure and learn from it. It's a sport of failure. If you get bogged down by defeat you'll never succeed. The best rider has only a 25 per cent win rate, that's a 75 per cent loss rate. You've always got to learn from your mistakes."
Woods is back in his European home in Andorra after spending last week at his team get-together in Israel and is about to start preparing for 2022.
His goal is to up his win rate in races where he has proven his ability, even against the new generation of riders who have raised the bar so high.
"I just want to get that big win in 2022," Woods said.
"I'd like to be a touch more consistent and more successful. I'd like to sacrifice some of those fifth places for one big result. My goals will be the Ardennes Classics and stages in the Tour, things like that."
"I may be 35 but I feel I'm still getting better, that I'm racing better than ever before. I'm energised by what I can improve on in 2022."
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