Michael Woods: Tour Down Under is one for the climbers this year
'I'm honoured that Richie Porte's named me as a favourite'
"No," answers Michael Woods, before bursting out laughing when Cyclingnews asks the Canadian climber if he knows what to expect at this year's Tour Down Under.
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"When I first came here in 2016, I was a total neo pro, and in retrospect I lucked out big time in the lead-outs," admits Woods. "I had Simon Clarke helping me out quite a bit, who's a really experienced guy, but despite his vast knowledge, I just kind of 'lucked' into the positions that I ended up being in.
"On the Corkscrew that same year, I was fifth wheel going into the climb, and even on Willunga Hill I did an OK job, and my legs were great – so I had a great race.
"The following year, I came here with all this excitement towards the race because I felt like I'd done better training, and I'd had a year of WorldTour racing under my belt, but then I completely messed it all up, and finished every stage with my tail between my legs," he says. "I'd talked a big game before the race, and ended up just, like, totally crap."
Having skipped last year's race, Woods is back again this year, as is the Corkscrew, on stage 4, and Willunga Hill, which has been moved from the penultimate stage to the final stage – stage 6 – in the hope that the overall result will go right down to the wire.
"By virtue of stage 3 [from Lobethal to Uraidla] also being so hard, I think this year's race is going to suit the climbers a bit more than in years past," he tells Cyclingnews.
While Woods says he's not sure what to expect, after two mixed years, he's happy to admit that it's a course that, on paper, seems to suit him.
"Being the first race of the season, however, you just never know where you're going to be at," he says. "I've had a good run of training, but this race is so tight in the margins, and the level's so high now, that if I'm just half a per cent off, I'll finish 30th.
"I'm just coming into the race this time as relaxed as possible, just excited about wearing the new kit for the first time," he grins, referring to his EF Education First team's new fluorescent pink and blue jerseys. "I think it's great, and when I found out that we were rocking them for the first time Down Under, I was super stoked."
Woods may still be unsure of how he'll go in South Australia next week, but race favourite and 2017 Tour Down Under champion Richie Porte has named Woods – along with Sky's Wout Poels – as a rider to watch at this year's race.
"I wasn't happy about that," Woods jokes. "I wanted to fly under the radar, but now I've got an 'X' on my back because of Richie. I mean, it's Richie's race. He's won on Willunga five times in a row now, and I think it would be foolish to go and say that I'm anywhere close to a favourite compared to him. But no – it's a big mark of respect when a guy like that picks you as another contender, so if anything I feel excited and honoured that he brought my name up."
Having had a true breakout season in 2018, was Woods ever tempted to skip the Tour Down Under again in order to replicate last year?
"I've always found the Australian summer to be great preparation for the year," he says. "My only issue with it in the past is that I've done just the Tour Down Under, or I've done just the Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. Having peaked for those races, and then having taken a break afterwards, I felt almost ripped off because I'd done such a big block of training and then only got two races in, whereas this year, now that we're doing the Herald Sun Tour as well, it's a real nice block of racing. I'm going to do these races, and then afterwards I'm going to go home and take a week off – just rest, recover, reset my head, go to Andorra, maybe even do a bit of skiing, and then start training again for the lead-up to the Ardennes.
"I think that if you want to come in here flying, it's pretty much impossible to maintain that form all the way through to the Ardennes. All the guys who perform well at the Ardennes are often not here, but if they are, they often take a bit of a break afterwards."
After his second place to Quick-Step's Bob Jungels at last year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Woods will once again target the one-day Classic before assessing which Grand Tour – or two – he may ride.
"Liège is my big goal – not just Liège; the Ardennes in general. I think they really suit me: the Ardennes and the Italian Classics at the end of the season," he says. "I just love those races. They're the ones I really want to target this year."
Woods explains that he's really struggled with allergies at the Giro d'Italia these past two seasons, and so might skip it this year in favour of the Tour de France.
"I've said to [EF sports director] Charly Wegelius that I really want to do the Tour this year. I've never done it before, but I feel like I'm ready to do it. Obviously we're going to have to see how the season progresses with Rigoberto Uran and Tejay van Garderen," Woods says, with van Garderen having joined the team this year from BMC Racing, "and I'm completely understanding of that. But if the opportunity arises, I really want to do the Tour. And then, if I have the legs, I want to do the Vuelta as well.
"Compared to those two guys, obviously I'm not going to have the same level of say in which Grand Tours I do. However, I do want to target some individual stages at the Grand Tours this year, while kind of keeping the Ardennes as the main goal, so we're going to see how my role plays out and then see which Grand Tours I'm going to do.
"I love the Vuelta. I think it's such a cool race, and it suits me as a rider so much," he says. "Even if I don't do the Tour, the Vuelta's going to be my main focus from a Grand Tour perspective. But if I do do the Tour, I'm going to try to keep the motivation after that and see if I can do another GT.
"I've done the Giro-Vuelta double twice now. But that's not the same double as the Tour-Vuelta. It's a bit of a shorter window, so we'll see what the energy levels are like in August."
After a stage win at last year's Vuelta a España, Woods went on to take third place at the world championship road race in Innsbruck, Austria. That performance, where his bronze medal came following an exciting sprint against winner Alejandro Valverde of Spain and France's Romain Bardet, made a big impression – both on Woods and Canadian fans.
"I'm a proud Canadian," he smiles. "Growing up, when I was a runner, the World Championships and the Olympics were all I cared about. You'd watch Donovan Bailey win the 100m dash, and just feel this massive rush of pride, as though you were a part of it.
"Then, when I came third at the Worlds and watched the Canadian flag going up, I started thinking, 'Maybe there's a kid doing the same thing as I was doing back when I was watching the national [ice] hockey team play, or Donovan Bailey sprint,' and it gave me chills," says Woods. "So if I'm able to replicate that at least once again in my career, it'd be something I'd really cherish."
With his third place, Woods became the first male Canadian rider to reach the road-race podium since Steve Bauer's bronze medal in 1984.
"Yeah – and Steve was there. He was at the race in Innsbruck," Woods says, clearly thrilled. "I wasn't even born then – I was born in '86 – so it was a real emotional high finishing and then seeing him right there at the finish line. He was in the VIP area and we gave each other a big hug and he was just all smiles – he was so happy for me. I think that's testament to how good of a guy he is."
Woods admits that he's still disappointed that he'd been unable to win, but that he was hugely proud to have finished third, and is hoping to try again to win the rainbow jersey when the Worlds take place in Yorkshire, in the UK, in September this year.
"It's still, what, nine, almost 10 months until the next Worlds, and so many things can happen in a season," he says. "That being said, I really love representing Canada, and having done so well at the Worlds last season made me better known in Canada as a result. The number of people who came up to me when I went home there this winter and told me what an amazing race it was really took me aback, and made me realise where I should focus a lot of my attention in cycling."
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