For Michael Woods, 2022 brings his 10th year as a bike racer and seventh as a professional, but the 35-year-old Israel Start-Up Nation climber has said that he still doesn't quite feel like a veteran of the sport.
Woods, who made the switch from middle-distance running in part thanks to injuries sustained in the sport, will race his second season with the Israeli outfit next year following a five-year spell with EF Education First.
Along the way he has won two stages and scored a top 10 at the Vuelta a España, won Milano-Torino, and finished on the podium at the Worlds road race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But he told Cyclingnews at ISN's recent post-season camp that he is hesitant to label himself as a veteran of the sport, instead noting that his life lessons learned outside of sport gives him something that many riders might not have.
"I certainly don't see myself as a veteran, but now I don't feel like an impostor," Woods told Cyclingnews in Tel Aviv. "I certainly felt like an impostor when I first started.
"I feel like I do belong in this sport, but I feel like – outside the cycling sphere I feel like a veteran. I felt like a veteran before I started racing the WorldTour in life experience because a lot of guys haven't gone to university, haven't had a real job, they have had a lot of arrested development.
"But race-wise I feel like when I first started, I knew nothing and that now I'm starting to understand the sport a lot better and that's why I'm enjoying it more, and that's why I'm going to continue to get better over the next several years."
Despite his self-professed non-veteran status, Woods nevertheless has a wealth of experience to hand down throughout the team, which has only just completed its second year at WorldTour level and experienced rapid growth – into the top 10 of the 2021 UCI rankings – since.
As well as leading in races where he can compete for top results, he has also taken on that role of helping others in the squad – not just domestique work but mentoring teammates, too.
"I feel like that was one of the things I wanted to take on last year and this year more so," he said. "In the coming years I want to be more of a leader. I think it was a real honour in Lombardia and a few other Italian Classics this year, Nicki Sorensen asked me to be a team leader, team captain. That's a role I really want to jump forward into.
"I like the mentorship side of things. I run a coaching business back in Canada in running, so I've always liked being a bit of a leader and a mentor in that sense, and I hope that I can take some other guys under my wing and motivate them and get them riding better."
As the years have progressed and ISN has moved up towards being a top team in the sport, the riders there have changed. Big names such as Woods, Chris Froome, Giacomo Nizzolo, Sep Vanmarcke, and Jakob Fuglsang head up the 2022 squad, but there have been other changes too, including the progression made by the homegrown riders.
While several years ago it was seen as a success for an Israeli rider to start a Grand Tour, now the team's group of Israelis – Omer Goldstein, Guy Niv, Itamar Einhorn, and Guy Sagiv – are scoring results of their own and proving themselves as strong helpers in big races, Woods said.
"I think now it's not seen as the 'token Israelis' but actually professional riders. You had Itamar beating Peter Sagan in a race [stage 4 at the Tour of Slovakia]. Omer Goldstein was useful at the Tour this year – he did some stuff that really impressed me and showed his class as a bike rider.
"That's what cycling's biggest handicap is from an international perspective – it's that it's so entrenched in certain countries and that those countries have a representation. It's not that the Italians and Belgians are inherently better physical specimens. They're not the best athletes, you know? They have the best infrastructure around them. And when you see teams be more international and having more infrastructure from other countries, that's when you see nations doing better.
"That's a reflection of how we've done in the UCI rankings in the past several years with Canada. We now have a quote-unquote half-Canadian WorldTour team, and we are outperforming other countries on the American Continental ranking by significant margins. You're going to start seeing that with Israeli cycling as well. It's only going to get better because of this infrastructure."
In 2022, there will be plenty to keep an eye on at ISN outside of the biggest names on the roster, then. Nevertheless, Woods will certainly be one to watch considering his proclamation that he can still get better even at an age when most other pros – those with a more traditional career path and far more kilometres in the legs – start to think about winding down their careers.
He enjoyed a strong 2021 campaign, racking up a big win in the mountains of the Tour de Romandie, as well as top fives at the Olympics road race, La Flèche Wallonne, Liège, and the Tours of Switzerland and Britain. He heads into next year in a "good groove" and is looking forward to a season without the stress of building up to one big goal like the Tokyo Olympics.
"For me I'm just really looking forward to having a lower stress season," Woods said. "There's no World Championships for me. I don't think I'll be going to Australia because I don't think it's going to be a hard enough course. There's no Olympics.
"So, it's more just really enjoying the season and seeing what kind of results I can pull up. I really, really enjoyed racing my bike in the last block of this season particularly. I'm in a really good groove right now and I think some good results are going to come by."
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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