The race was virtual, but the effort was real, and victory was a tangible sign of progress for Michael Woods. A little over four months after breaking his femur at Paris-Nice, the Canadian won stage 5 of the Virtual Tour de France on Saturday, underlining his rapid recovery from a career-threatening injury.
Woods’ first, tentative rides after his surgery took place on Zwift in early April, where he said his modest objective was simply to ride for 50 minutes at 50 watts or more. On Saturday, the EF Pro Cycling rider tackled the platform’s virtual rendering of Mont Ventoux, where he averaged 6.7w/kg to drop the NTT duo of Domenico Pozzovivo and Louis Meintjes and claim victory at a pixelated Châlet Reynard.
Not quite the real thing, but a promising portent for Woods just two weeks out from Strade Bianche. The Tuscan event is both his first race since injury and the first on the WorldTour calendar after the lengthy hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it’s certainly a good boost in confidence,” Woods said. “This last month, my coach Paul Saldanha and I have seen some massive improvements in performance. I’ve seen the same numbers I was putting out pre-crash, so we both knew I was fit and we started getting excited about the races to come, so this is just kind of a reaffirmation of that.”
As well as the reading on his powermeter, Woods was able to gauge his form in a more empirical but no less encouraging fashion at a team training camp in Andorra last week, where he went toe-to-toe with teammate Hugh Carthy whenever the road climbed. “When I’m able to hang with Hugh and finish a hill with him, I know I’m going really well,” Woods said. “So the form’s really good and I’m happy with the comeback.”
Prior to his injury, Woods would have been a certainty for the EF Pro Cycling squad for the Tour de France. He has been included on the team’s pre-selection for the race, which has been rescheduled for August 29-September 20, but his schedule has yet to be defined beyond his first three races: Strade Bianche (August 1), Milan-San Remo (August 8) and Il Lombardia (August 15), where he will line up with considerable ambition after placing 5th last October.
“At the moment, the team is just playing this race by race,” Woods said. “We don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. I am on the long list for the roster [for the Tour de France] but we want to see how things are coming along. It’s too far ahead to make any big predictions right now.”
Speaking to reporters via Zoom after his Zwift victory on Saturday, Woods said that the lowest point of his lay-off came immediately after his crash on March 12. “It was so traumatic,” Woods said. “Lying on the side of the road and seeing the condition my leg was in made me worried not just for the races to come but for my career in cycling in general. It was terrifying.”
At that point, he assumed that his injury would rule him out of the year’s first two objectives, the Tour and the Tokyo Olympics, and severely compromise his prospects of being competitive at the third, the World Championships in Martigny.
Paris-Nice, however, proved to be the final event on the WorldTour calendar before the lengthy hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while the Olympic Games were postponed to 2021. The news that he could still plan for an assault on an Olympic medal proved a salve to Woods’ morale as he began his arduous rehabilitation.
Coincidentally, the 12-month postponement also encouraged a former teammate from the University of Michigan athletics programme, Irishman Ciarán Ó Lionáird, to come out of early retirement and target qualification for the 1500m in Tokyo. Another happenstance arrived in early May, when coronavirus lockdown restrictions eased in Spain on the very day that Woods was given the all-clear to train outdoors.
“My biggest goals in my career were just on the horizon – the Olympics, the Tour and the World Championships – all those three things, I didn’t think they were going to be happening,” Woods said. “And then all of a sudden, COVID happens, and each day, from a personal perspective, things got better – the Olympics were postponed, the Tour was postponed, and each day, my leg just got better. Each day, I worked my butt off with a physiotherapist based here in Spain, Richard Spink.
“I saw improvements each day and that made it easier to get through this very dark period. Mentally, it made it into something positive.”
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.