Canada's Michael Woods (EF-Education First-Drapac) clinched his first-ever WorldTour win and first Grand Tour stage with a remarkable display of climbing power on the mist-wreathed summit of Balcon De Bizkaia during stage 17 at the Vuelta a España.
Part of a breakaway of 25 riders that shredded itself to pieces on the severely steep 7km Basque ascent, Woods had to dig deep on the last part of the stage as the road reared up for its umpteenth double-digit ramp, with closest pursuer Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing Team) looming close behind.
Woods, 31, was able to hold on for his first victory since a stage of the Tour of Utah back in 2015, and for EF Education First-Drapac's second stage victory in the 2018 Vuelta a España. It is also Canada's first win in the Vuelta a España since Ryder Hesjedal on the Camperona in 2014, which the peloton tackled last Friday.
Woods explained that it had been a deeply emotional win for him as he and his wife had lost their son in a stillbirth two months ago. His wife had been 37 weeks pregnant at the time, and her father also died just a month before that.
"It has been really, really difficult. We were just so excited to bring him into this world, his name was Hunter." Woods told reporters.
"It's been a very hard year for us. I really wanted to win for him and win for my wife."
Woods described the final climb itself as really tough, but one in which he had felt confident. "I think in the first two or three kilometres [Alessandro] De Marchi was pacing it pretty evenly, but I was able to breathe well and relax.
"Then when the first attacks went, I felt like one of the strongest guys in the break, and I was responding really well. I managed to answer some of the early attacks, then Juanma [Garate] came on the radio and told me, 'Stay relaxed, just wait, just wait, you've got this'. And so I did."
Woods emphasised that having had an early win in the Vuelta a España with Simon Clarke meant that the pressure on EF-Drapac had lowered notably, and he thanked his teammates for their strong support.
As for getting his first WorldTour win in a year when he has already taken second in a Monument at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, "It's been a long time coming, quite a few second places, and I really wanted this."
Woods said that he had suffered, but strong form had enabled him to dig deep and that the atmosphere on the climb, with thousands of Basque fans cheering him on, had been a major morale boost. As he pointed out, the Basque Country always provides strong support in bike races, and Wednesday on the Vuelta's unprecedented ascent of Mount Oiz proved to be no exception.
The climb looked brutally difficult, but Woods said he had managed to bluff his closest rival, Teuns, on the last part of the ascent when he was closest to victory.
"We were both of us going full stick, there were still 500 metres left and I had thought I didn't have so many metres to go and then realised, 'Man, there's still well over two minutes to go.'
"So I went into this place in my mind and tried to channel all my energy into thinking how tough this year has been and really used my little guy Hunter as inspiration for me to get across the line."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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