Like almost everybody else in the 2021 Tour de France, Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) has experienced a brutal first nine days of racing, but the Canadian climbing star is feeling no less ambitious for that in the remaining fortnight.
Woods is currently doing his second Tour de France after his debut in 2019 was marred by multiple crashes, including breaking two ribs in one mid-race fall. Despite the injuries, he battled through all the way to Paris. And as you might expect from a rider who seemingly thrives on difficulties, Woods is still aiming high for what remains in the rest of the 2021 race as well.
A morale-boosting third place in the tough stage to Le Grand-Bornand last Saturday is already in the bag but stage wins and potentially the mountains classification remain etched on his 201 Tour bucket list.
"The first week wasn't supposed to be like this but man it's been challenging," Woods told a small group of reporters at the start of stage 10 when describing what he called the toughest opening leg of any Grand Tour he's raced.
"Just finishing stage 9 was one of my hardest three days on the bike, I think, with a sense of complete and utter fatigue. I woke up feeling hungover the next day with bags under my eyes."
Looking for comparatively difficult days, he said he found "I was reminiscing about finishing on the Finestre [in the 2018 Giro d'Italia - Ed.] when [Chris] Froome went for it in 2018 and waking up the next day and realizing you still have one more day to go. Just like that, it was a tough wake up yesterday morning."
Woods says he is feeling much stronger again after a solid rest day and his energy levels are restored, which is just as well because he has ambitious plans for the rest of the Tour.
"The two days circled in this week are the Ventoux and the Andorra stages, for breakaways and potentially try to take the climber's jersey," Woods said. But he recognised he faces some formidable contenders for the same classification. Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) is leading the ranking right now, and the Colombian is adamant he will defend it all the way to Paris, too.
"It's just my luck that I picked this year to go for the mountains jersey," Woods said half-seriously, half-jokingly about Quintana. "It's a very prestigious jersey but now I'm going for it in the same year that Quintana is too."
Woods, second in the mountains competition, currently has 42 points to Quintana's 50. Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious), who has already led the competition this year, is in third with 39, so can't be ruled out of the battle either. Either way, Woods is looking to make his mark.
"The best climbs for me normally are the short, hard ones. But since last year, I'm going much better than I have ever been on the long climbs. I don't think the Ventoux stage is tailor-made for me but I can say," he said with a chuckle, "I'm the last guy to win the Tour on Ventoux on Zwift."
Quite apart from virtual racing triumphs on the Ventoux, Andorra, where he lives with his family when based in Europe, will be an upcoming stage with special associations for him as well.
"Unfortunately being in the race bubble I won't be able to see my family but I know they'll be on the side of the roads cheering and I know the roads well," he reflected.
As for why the Tour is just so hard this year, interestingly, Woods attributes its fraught nature to Tadej Pogačar's domination. The situation is that rather than having a couple of racers or more contending for the overall victory at this point in the game, Pogačar is head and shoulders above the rest of the field. As a result, as Woods sees it, only one team is controlling the race and because the first week was far tougher than usual, things have got out of control even quicker than usual.
As for Pogačar's chances of taking a second yellow in Paris, Woods says simply that the Tour "is his to lose. But consistency in a Grand Tour GC fight is also super-important. Last year, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) was so dominant in the first two weeks and then cracked. He didn't lose form, though, Pogačar just went over him.
"Maybe Pogačar has gone too hard in the first week. But the way he's looked in the peloton and the way he's raced - I don't see any cracks in the armour at the moment." Meanwhile, Woods has his own targets to reach.
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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