Michael Woods' fifth-place finish on the Queen Stage of the Volta ao Algarve last week, behind stage winner Richie Porte (Sky), World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep), Jon Izzagire (Movistar) and Geraint Thomas (Sky), signalled his quick ascent through cycling's ranks.
Woods, 28, only started racing his bike at an elite level three years ago. But while his rise to a world-class level has been quick, his journey to get there has been long and filled with heartbreak. The Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies rider started his athletic career as a middle-distance runner in his hometown of Ottawa, Canada, where he established himself as one of the best up-and-coming milers in the world.
When he was 18 years old, Woods ran the mile in 3:57.48, the 3,000m in 7:58.04, took gold in the 1,500m at the Pan Am junior championships and had a world ranking in the top 50. As a freshman at the University of Michigan, Woods envisioned Olympic glory and a long and fruitful career on the track.
But a recurring stress fracture in his left foot brought those dreams crashing down. Woods said over-training and a bit of poor guidance allowed the injury to snowball until it got to the point that he broke the bone every time he raced.
"It was really tough," Woods recently told Cyclingnews from Portugal, where he will compete with Optum again this weekend before heading home.
"My last race really was in 2007, and I spent four years just kind of working and not really knowing what I was going to do with my life," he said. "It was a pretty tough time, because when I was younger I was one of the guys. I was kind of picked as one of the great white hopes for the mile. But getting injured just kind of dashed those hopes and it was tough."
Turning to the bike
Woods eventually turned to cycling in 2011 as an outlet for his competitive spirit, borrowing his father's bike to enter local races. When he started winning, a friend found him a spot on the Canadian national team for the 2012 Tour de Beauce.
"I got a real lucky break doing that race, and I ended up on the team with Svein Tuft and Christian Meier," he said. "I was still a Cat 2 when I did the race, but I ended up turning heads there and I got a spot for myself on a Conti team for the next year. I worked my way up from there."
Woods first rode at the Continental level in 2013 with Garneau-Quebecor, a Canadian team with a criterium focus. He signed with Amore & Vita in 2014 and rode with the Ukrainian-registered, Italian-based team through the Tour de Beauce, where he finished second on the Mont Mégantic stage and was sixth overall. Woods put nearly a minute into Optum's Carter Jones [now with Giant-Alpecin] and Team SmartStop's Rob Britton on the final climb.
"He's had limited opportunities because he hasn't been able to get on a team that will take him to races that suit him well," said Optum team director Jonas Carney. "He hasn't had a lot of opportunities outside the Tour of Beauce on the Mégantic stage."
Woods moved to 5-hour Energy after Beauce and ended his season racing with the Canadian national team at the country's two WorldTour races in September, finishing 75th in Quebec City and 26th in Montreal. He moved to Optum after 5-hour folded in the off-season.
"There's not a lot of races he's been able to do that are pro races with a mountain top finish, you know, that style of racing," Carney said. "So he did fly a little bit under the radar. But what we saw last year with him racing at the [WorldTour races] in Quebec, he's clearly ready to race at a very high level right now."
A steep learning curve in the peloton
Woods proved Carney's point with his result at Algarve, where he eventually finished 12th overall. Although he admits that he's currently in the form of his life, Woods said his fitness isn't really that much improved from previous years. The difference now is his confidence and his constant learning curve around the in and outs of navigating the peloton.
"Often in previous years I was putting out good numbers even in the races, but I wasn't positioned well so it didn't matter," Woods said. "But in the last year I've really gotten a much better sense of racing at this level. During the WorldTour last year and even in the World Championships I kind of knew where I needed to be, and then also having the support of a great team, I was able to execute what I thought I was capable of."
Woods got a taste of his abilities against the top pros during Algarve's second stage, when he was the only non-WorldTour rider to make the 18-man front group that finished 31 seconds ahead of the field. He was happy with the result, but like any competitor, he knew he could do better because he started the final climb in the back half of the peloton.
"In retrospect, I think if I had positioned myself better, and then instead of just being happy to be there – been a little bit less complacent – I could have gotten a better result on that day," he said. "But that's any elite cyclist. At first they're going to be happy, and then they're going to see fault in what they did and try to get better."
Applying his hard-learned lessons
Woods learned from the experience and was determined to improve on the result two days later during stage 4, which featured two trips up the Category 2 climb of Alto do Malhão, where the race finished.
"It was pretty typical of European stage racing in that a break went super early, really controlled, and then it was just a day of mundane racing for about 180km – you know where it's just kind of nervous but there's nothing going on," Woods said, recalling how the day unfolded. "You're at the front, but you're kind of there for no reason. It's mentally really draining. I was just at the front of the peloton making sure that nothing happened for five hours."
Woods' vigilance paid off when he was in the right spot this time as the race began to blow apart with about 40km remaining. The first selection came when the field ascended Malhão for the first time. Woods' Canadian teammate Ryan Anderson made sure he was well-positioned to make the first cut.
"After that climb we took a right turn and everything blew up," Woods said. "Tony Martin tried a couple of big attacks along with a few riders from Astana. I followed one of Tony Martin's attacks on the penultimate climb, which was a small cat 3 climb, but Richie Porte was just phenomenal that day. He brought us back and then just basically rode the front for that last circuit. And then he rode all the way up to the top and dropped everybody. It was incredible."
Woods was pretty incredible as well, once again positioning himself as the only non-WorldTour rider in a select group of heavy hitters battling for the stage podium. Woods' fifth-place finish put him just ahead of Katusha's Tiago Machado and Alberto Losada, as well as Cannondale-Garmin's Davide Formolo.
The road ahead
The result was a morale and confidence booster for Woods, who said that although his goals for the season haven't changed, his expectations may have.
"It kind of reinforced my goals," he said. "At the start of the year I was looking at Algarve, Tour of California and Tour of Utah as being three of my big target races. Those are still the target races, but now I think I've got a really good shot at doing well after this race.
"Obviously this is the best performance of my life," he said. "I think there's some room still to improve, and I think if I take a week off after we come back from Portugal and just kind of recharge the batteries, then with a solid build I think I can be a better rider and in better form than I was at Algarve."
Woods' goal of making it to a WorldTour team may be a little closer as well, although he knows that at 28, getting into cycling's top division will be another uphill battle.
"There's a lot of ageism in cycling, for sure," he said. "Like I'm 28, so I'm above the UCI Conti cut-off, and that really affected me. Last year I didn't have any contract offers, so I had to rough it and ended up going over to Amore & Vita. I had a year of learning experiences, let's put it that way."
Paulo Saldanha, Woods' coach for the past two years, told him when they started working together that Woods had a very small window for making a splash in the sport, and that he'd have to maximize his results in that window.
"In my mind that window was last year," Woods said. "If I didn't get any results last year, I wasn't going to be able to move on and continue. I was fortunate enough to get a couple of results, and so now the window has expanded a little bit and I've got a couple more years to try and prove myself."