When a tenacious person sets their mind to a task, they usually achieve it in spades. It's a quality that stands out in former-runner-turned-pro-cyclist Michael Woods. After all, anything really worth doing takes persistence, perseverance and stubborn determination, and it's these character traits, along with a natural athletic gift, that have landed this relatively unknown rider a one-year contract with the WorldTour team Cannondale-Garmin in 2016.
Woods picked up cycling four years ago, after a once-flourishing career in athletics came to an abrupt end. As a runner, he set the Canadian junior record in the mile and the 3,000m, and won the gold medal in the 1,500m at the Pan Am junior championships (2005). He took a full scholarship and raced the NCAA at the University of Michigan and was on track for a long-term career in middle-distance running as an Olympic hopeful until several stress fractures in his foot eventually forced him to quit.
In 2011 and 2012, he started out cycling with a club-level team in Ottawa, and then moved up the ranks to Continental-level teams Garneau-Quebecor, Amore & Vita and 5-hour Energy, and had several invitations to join the Canadian national team before finding a comfortable place with the US-based outfit Optum Pro Cycling for the 2015 season.
As a cyclist, he has had some respectable results but it was his record-breaking ride up the Haleakala Climb on the island of Maui in 2013 that first caught Cannondale-Garmin CEO Jonathan Vaughters' attention. Woods beat Ryder Hesjedal's 2009 record, setting the new mark at 2:32:24 along the 56km volcanic ascent, a record that Vaughters once owned in 1993.
"Someone tweeted at him [about breaking the Haleakala Climb record] and ever since, on and off, he has messaged me," Woods said.
His future position on Vaughters' WorldTour team really started to take shape this February at the Volta ao Algarve, where he placed fifth on the stage 4 summit finish to Alto do Malhão, surrounded by WorldTour riders. He had gone on to pick up other good results, too, with a second place atop Manayunk Wall at the Philadelphia Cycling Classic and he won the queen stage 5 at the Tour of the Gila.
According to Woods, the deal with Vaughters was sealed after he finished second overall at the Tour of Utah, where he also won stage 5 in Salt Lake City and briefly wore the leader's jersey before losing it to Joe Dombrowski at the Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort during stage 6.
"We started talking quite a bit this year, especially after my result at Algarve in Portugal at the start of the season and we kept in conversation. I definitely think that hitting it out of the park in Utah helped solidify the deal."
Woods shined at Algarve, finishing stage 5 in the lead group with Porte, Kwiatkowski, Izagirre, Thomas and Machado.
Ardennes Classics, Tour de France and the Olympic dream
When Cannondale-Garmin announced signing Woods for the 2016 season, there was one quote from Vaughters that really stood out. He said he believed Woods "could be one of the top Ardennes riders in the world someday", a statement that effectively puts the Canadian in the genre of Ardennes Classics specialists like Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Philippe Gilbert, Michal Kwiatkowski and Dan Martin, among others.
Woods agreed with Vaughters' comment, in as far as being the type of rider suited to long races and punchy climbs, and he hopes to get the opportunity to test himself in races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne next spring.
"That is super flattering," Woods said. "I think my skill set is in the two- to 10-minute punchy climbs after a long effort. I never really had too many opportunities to test those skills because there aren't that many Ardennes-type races in North America, besides maybe Philly.
"My race skills, bike-handling skills and tactical ability haven't really enabled me to show off that ability. Before, the only time I could really prove myself was on climbs, just because I had a motor, but I didn't have the ability to do anything else.
"Now, I'm getting more confident in my bike-handling skills, tactical ability, and I'm starting to think that the punchy, hilly classics and the shorter, punchy stage races, like Algarve and Utah, I can really excel in. But to say that he thinks I could be one of the best Ardennes riders in the world someday is pretty flattering. That's cool."
As far as challenging one-day races go, Woods is targeting the road race at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next summer. He hopes to gain a spot on the Canadian team, a goal he believes is achievable considering he is currently ranked second in the UCI America Tour.
"The big goal next year is to do the Olympics," Woods said. "It falls into that Ardennes-style race; a hilly, long and punchy race, and it will really suit my skill set.
"Right now, I've scored the lions share of the America Tour points and I've really proven my ability as a climber, so I think if we were to select the Olympic team tomorrow, I would have a really good shot. But it's still a year away, and so I'm going to have to continue to get results and prove myself throughout this year and next year in order to earn that spot."
For now, Woods wants to collect UCI points for Canada through the end of this year to help his country in its bid for spots in the Olympic men's road race. Next year on Cannondale-Garmin, Woods envisions himself supporting the team's overall contenders during mountainous races, but he would also like the freedom to go for his own top results during challenging one-day events so he can earn one of the spots on Canada's Olympic team.
"That was one of the things that solidified my decision to go to Cannondale, was talking to Jonathan Vaughters and saying that my big goal was the Olympics," Woods said. "Obviously I won't be the guy to be supported at every race, but I wanted a few opportunities to prove that I can be on the Olympic squad for real."
Woods doesn't see himself as a Grand Tour contender, but like any cyclist entering the WorldTour ranks for the first time, he would relish in the opportunity to race the Tour de France.
"The Tour is the big thing, so I would eventually like to do the Tour," Woods said. "I don't see myself as being a Grand Tour GC guy but it would be cool to support some of the other guys on the team and their hunt for the GC."
Ignorance is bliss
Woods' cycling career is turning into quite the success story and his fans are no doubt itching to watch him compete against the world's best for a full season. His first year on the WorldTour, however, will likely see him [and his team] continue to try and figure out where his true abilities lie.
Those who have followed Woods' start in cycling know that his relatively short time in the sport has been up and down, riddled with an equal amount of success and misfortune, so much so that one would think he is deserving of a shot at the WorldTour based on his sheer willpower to rebound from bad luck.
He has experienced losses, accidents and injuries that would demoralise any newcomer to the sport, and many of them are documented in his Cyclingnews blogs; Calming the emotional roller coaster at Redlands Bicycle Classic, Dead fish and the Tour of California and The Rash.
His determination, which may be bigger than his engine, has kept him coming back for more, and he's all the more successful because of it. It was this stubborn drive that dragged Fränk Schleck, Chris Horner and Natnael Berhane up the climb to Snowbird in pursuit of eventual winner Dombrowski, and it is likely one of his qualities that has captivated Vaughters into giving him an opportunity on Cannondale-Garmin.
"Mike is the real deal," Vaughters said. "… One of the things that impressed me most about Mike is the way he earned his way into cycling. He wasn't a part of any development team and he got where he is by hard work, camping in his car, and really toughing it out."
Woods is the type of person who just won't quit, who keeps trying until he reaches his goals, and he is the first to admit that his determination is sometimes blind. When he first made the decision to race bikes he said he knew that he would one day be a member of a WorldTour team, but if he had known from the beginning how hard it was to make it to the top level in cycling, he might have given up.
"One of the reasons that I started cycling in the first place was because I wanted to be on a WorldTour team, I wanted to do the Tour de France, I wanted to be a pro, but like, I was totally ignorant as to how hard it was to do that," Woods said.
"Ignorance is bliss, and knowing what I know now… if the me four years ago said to the me now, ‘you're going to be on a WorldTour team', I would think that he was crazy, that there's no way. It was kind of the same thing in my running career, too.
"When you're ignorant to what you can't do, you can do some really big things."
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