Michael Woods (EF Education First Pro Cycling) returned to the Tour Down Under for the third time in his short professional career this week. Despite a hillier course than previous years, Woods was unable to best his fifth place on general classification from three years ago, finishing seventh on the final stage at Willunga Hill and seventh on GC.
Going into the final stage, and based on previous editions of the race, a group of climbing specialists including Woods, George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), Wout Poels (Team Sky) and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), were all hoping to be aggressive in the hope of at least taking the stage and with a faint possibility of taking the overall.
Attacks from Team Sky's Poels and Kenny Elissonde were ultimately fruitless, however, as Richie Porte surged to the line to take a sixth consecutive stage victory on Willunga Hill.
Woods did his best to match the Australian - they were on the same time on GC ahead of the stage - but was unable to hold Porte's wheel in the final few hundred metres.
"It was hard, disappointing," Woods told reporters after the stage. "I felt really good today and felt like I did a really good job of positioning, when Richie [Porte] went I followed but Richie is so good on this climb, it's tailor made for him.
"I really struggle on the non-steep climbs, especially if there's headwind and he just tore me apart. I blew up and felt like I was just treading water for the last kilometre, just trying to stay afloat and guys kept on coming past me. That's the disappointing part of racing to win, when you fail you blow up big time."
After a stellar 2018 season for Woods, which featured a Vuelta a Espana stage victory, second place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and third at the world championships road race, the Canadian arrived to the Tour Down Under as one of the marked favourites for the hilly, 21st edition of the race.
The combination of the heat in South Australia and strong rides from the likes of Patrick Bevin (CCC Team), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) on the intermediate stages of the race, however, put Woods and the other climbers on the back foot, leaving them with just the final stage honours to fight for on Sunday.
Following Bevin's stage 5 crash, the CCC Team leader struggled on the first ascent of Willunga and was dropped. Impey then became the virtual leader of the race and simply needed to keep the climbers on a tight leash to become the first ever rider to retain the Tour Down Under title for consecutive years.
A well measured effort put Impey third on the stage, coming past Woods in the finale as he paid the price for looking to match Porte's accelerations.
"If you're not racing to win on this climb, if you're not racing to beat Richie, the best way to do it is to pace it. Set it at a good tempo, just keep going and smash the last 500 metres," Woods continued. "I didn't come here to try and come fifth, I came here to try and win and I wasn't going to be happy if I didn't try to follow Richie's attack and then come second. That's not my style and that style ends leaving you feeling a little more gutted at the end of races sometimes.
"It just sucks, I don't think seventh reflects how my team rode this week and how I rode this week, that's the only part. From a metrics perspective, you'll look back at the results sheet and you're not super stoked."
Just six stages into the 2019 WorldTour season, Woods knows there will be more opportunities to come later in the season and is optimistic about his and EF Pro Cycling's form so early in the year.
"I think we've got a really good team for Cadel's [Road Race], not just with me but a few other key guys, Jimmy Whelan really proved he's a proper WorldTour rider, especially today. Then also [Herald] Sun Tour. I think Sun Tour is going to favour me a lot better, just it being a little steeper and more difficult race.
"I think it's a sign of good things to come. We're so early in the season and if I can come into this and perform as consistently as I have. I do far better on longer, harder races so even to be performing at this level for a short duration I'm pretty happy but I would've liked to have done better."