A cheer rippled along the Avenue du Parc as the fans draped across the barriers by the finish line caught sight of the figure in pink on the big screen. Three years had passed since Michael Woods (EF Education First) last raced the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal, an eternity in his late-blossoming but fast-developing career, and he was determined to mark the occasion.
Back then, Woods was a Pro Continental rider with a quirky backstory, the college miler turned cyclist. Now, with a World Championships bronze medal, a stage win at the Vuelta a España and a Tour de France debut under his wheels, he is Canada’s leading rider, the man familiar to even the most casual of observers in the Parc du Mont Royal on this Sunday afternoon.
Woods chose the last time up the ascent of the Côte Camillien-Houde to go on the offensive, but although his acceleration strung out the leading group, he was unable to force his way clear, thwarted by the headwind at the summit. At the end of a breathless final lap, a group of 18 contested the finish, where Woods had to settle for eighth place behind winner Greg Van Avermaet (CCC).
“My sensations were really good, and I tried to animate the race as much as possible, because it’s not the best course for me,” Woods said after taking a seat in the press tent afterwards. “The climbs aren’t super steep, but I tried a couple of digs, particularly on the last climb up Camillien-Houde. I made some errors in execution in the final sprint but I’m still happy with my performance.”
Woods’ great weapon as a rider is his ability to accelerate on the steepest of slopes, but he acknowledges that his sprint is the most obvious gap in his current armoury. The drag to the line in Montreal, however, had less to do with pure speed than it had with simply being able to keep a reasonably-sized gear turning over.
“It’s a really hard sprint just because of that last turn with 500 metres to go. Someone always attacks just after the corner – too soon – and because of that, everyone is à bloc in the final 100 metres,” Wood said.
“It isn’t a true, true sprint: it’s kind of like the 12th round of a boxing match. Guys are throwing pretty weak punches by the end because everyone’s so fatigued. But I think it does give me some confidence; I just need to get in more of these sprints because I think that’s the final piece that’s missing in my skillset as a Classics rider. I’m going to think about this sprint in the next few days and figure out where I went wrong. Hopefully, I can ameliorate my performance at the World Championships.”
Twelve months ago in Innsbruck, Woods came to the finish of the World Championships in an elite group with Alejandro Valverde, Romain Bardet and Tom Dumoulin, but had to settle for bronze after a four-up sprint. The mountainous Austrian course was tailored rather more carefully to Woods’ dimensions than the forthcoming race in Yorkshire on September 29, but he evinced optimism about his prospects after his displays this weekend in Quebec and Montreal – his first races since the Clasica San Sebastian in August.
“Today, just by virtue of it not being a climber’s Classic, I think it gives me a lot of confidence going into final part of season, especially after being off for six weeks,” Woods said. “The World Championships course is not going to be as tough as last year’s, but there are still over 4,000 metres of climbing and it’s over 290 kilometres, so I think it’s going to play out more like today’s race.
“I certainly think I have good shot at doing well there. It will be difficult to podium there, but it’s a good chance to showcase Canadian cycling. It’s also a springboard for my final goals of the season, because I really want to do well at Il Lombardia. It’s a Monument that I haven’t had great success in yet, but I think I’m capable of it.”