As Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac) lined up on Catania's Via Vittorio Emanuele II Tuesday morning, he was coy about his status among the favourites for stage 4 of the Giro d'Italia, which finished with a stiff uphill kick in Caltagirone.
"I've never won a WorldTour race before, so I obviously can't be considered the favourite until I do something like that," Woods said. "But it's one that I've certainly had marked on the calendar."
Woods' humility is perhaps a residue of his belated start in professional cycling following a previous existence as a collegiate middle-distance runner, but after placing second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège last month and 7th at the Vuelta a España last season, it was already self-evident that the Canadian fully merited his top billing.
On the pugnacious finale in Caltagirone, after almost five and a half hours of racing across the rugged and scorched hills of Sicily's Monti Iblei, Woods offered a further confirmation of his abilities by claiming second place behind Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) after the leading group had fragmented on the stiff push to the line.
"I felt great throughout the day and I knew I was going to be on a good one today," Woods said afterwards. "It was a really difficult and challenging last climb. Wellens just had the better legs.
I was trying to time it, and I tried coming around him, but I really just couldn't."
The road rose through the final kilometre at an average gradient of 8.5% and with pitches of 13%, but while it was clear that the finishing climb was well tailored to Woods' aerobic capabilities, it was less certain if the sinuous approach to Caltagirone would be as comfortable a fit.
Then again, Woods has appeared to grow into his clothes as a cyclist month by month since making the step up to WorldTour level in 2016, and he dealt smoothly with a run-in that proved the undoing of some loftier names. Chris Froome (Team Sky), for instance, was unable to hold the wheel of Wout Poels in the finale and conceded 21 seconds.
Once on the climb, Woods bided his time for the final 300 metres, and then followed Enrico Battaglin (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) when they opened their sprint efforts within sight of the line. Though Battaglin faded, Wellens showed no signs of relenting. Woods was lined up on the Belgian's wheel, but was simply unable to come around him, and had to settle for second place.
"It was all just a question of power. I was trying to come around but that was it, it was full gas," said Woods, who will expect to cross swords with Wellens once more on the punchy finales that dot the opening two weeks of this Giro. Stage 8 to Montevergine, in particular, could be suited to each man's characteristics.
"Hopefully Wellens loses some legs and I gain some, that's what I'm thinking," Woods smiled. "Today was one that I really wanted to target, I really wanted to do well here. We'll see how tomorrow goes and then there's another one similar to this coming up, so hopefully I can be good there."
Despite his 7th place finish at last year's Vuelta, Woods has resisted the temptation to build this Giro around a concerted tilt at the general classification. In what is only his third Grand Tour – he placed 38th overall at the 2017 Giro – the Canadian has elected to chase stage victories in during the opening skirmishes in Italy's deep south with little thought of sparing himself for the demanding final week in the high Alps.
"I'm here mainly for stages like this, although I'm not going to lose time in the general classification on purpose," Woods said at the start in Catania. "I want to see how I do on the first big climbs later on in the race, and if I'm still going well on those climbs, then we'll start shifting the focus to the GC."
Beyond chasing that elusive maiden WorldTour victory, Woods' emphasis on the early puncheurs' finales is also a consequence of his build-up to this Giro. While he prepared very specifically for the 2017 Vuelta with a lengthy stint at altitude, his road to the corsa rosa went through the Ardennes Classics.
"I certainly had different preparation pre-Vuelta, because I want to Colorado beforehand for an altitude camp, so I wasn't as punchy, I wasn't a very explosive rider at the start of the Vuelta," Woods said. "Coming into the Giro this year, I did a lot of the races just beforehand, and I didn't have an altitude camp because I ended up getting sick. I think I'm a lot more explosive now, but I'm not sure how I'll do on the longer climbs."
Thursday's 15km ascent to Mount Etna ought to shed rather more light on Woods' general classification prospects at this Giro. Meanwhile, his self-assurance can only be growing. Even without that elusive WorldTour win, the 'running man' has already arrived as a cyclist.
"Liège certainly changed the momentum of my season, but the Giro is obviously a very different race," Woods said. "Although I'm feeling confident, I'm not going to put too much expectation on myself right now."
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