On Saturday, Michael Woods will lead a team into the Tour de France for the first time in his career, heading up the eight-man Israel Start-Up Nation selection as he returns to the race after making his debut back in 2019.
The Canadian heads to Brest in arguably the best form of his pro career so far, having finished fifth and won the mountains jersey at the Tour de Suisse, picking up a second place on the final mountain stage along the way. Speaking to Cyclingnews days before the start of Le Grand Boucle in Brittany, Woods said he is looking forward to racing aggressively and relishing the prospect of leading Israel Start-Up Nation at the Tour.
"It's been a great season so far and I'm really happy with it," he said. "I think a lot of that has to do with getting another year under my belt and coming to a team which has really backed me and believed in me. It's been really successful so far. It's certainly the best season I've had to date. I really hope that I can keep that momentum going here.
"I think I'm in a great spot, particularly in the longer climbs. I was really happy with how I was responding to attacks from guys like Julian Alaphilippe and Richard Carapaz [in Switzerland].
"I've been given opportunities to lead before, but never at the biggest stage and I'm really excited about it for sure."
From February through to the Tour de Suisse earlier this month, Woods has been in the most consistent form of his career since turning pro with Cannondale back in 2016. He kicked off 2021 with a stage win and second overall at the Tour du Var – just missing out on the win thanks to mechanical problems – then took second on the Port Ainé summit finish at the Volta a Catalunya, before taking top fives at La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Another win came in the rain atop Thyon 2000 in Romandie, before his pair of podium places in Suisse saw him take another top five on the overall. He'll be aiming for another high GC placing at the Tour – with his best Grand Tour performance so far a seventh at the 2017 Vuelta a España – and should be among those riders battling for a top 10 in France over the next three weeks.
However, he's also looking for a stage victory to go with the two Vuelta stage wins on his palmarès. Last year, Israel Start-Up Nation won stages at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta, while Dan Martin – part of the Tour squad – won at Sega di Ala at this year's Giro.
Though there is a focus on performing well on the general classification, the team is still looking to race aggressively in search of what would be their first Tour stage victory.
"Although I'm going to be leading and going after a general classification run, the big goal is a stage win. That will come before the general classification," Woods said. "If I'm not going as well as I'm hoping in the general classification, I will sit up and try and lose time so I can get into breakaways later on.
"But my goal is that I would like to continue racing as I had at Romandie and Suisse, where I'm in the hunt from a general classification perspective but racing more aggressively and throwing caution to the wind a bit more in pursuit of a stage win.
"We want to be an opportunistic team. With Dan and I and even several other riders on the team, we've got some shots at getting stage wins."
Woods admitted that he hadn't been out to do a reconnaissance of any of the big mountain showdowns of the race – his packed schedule put paid to any hopes of that – though stage 15 around his adopted home of Andorra will take in familiar roads. He also plans with a philosophy of not looking too far ahead.
"I've always been a guy that doesn't like to look too far down the road," said Woods. "I think it's quite easy to get overwhelmed by the gravity and the distance of the Tour if you're thinking 10 or 12 stages down the road. I think you have to look forward to the first few days and then reassess after that."
Both Woods and Martin will be there to battle for stage wins, possibly as soon as the opening weekend, which takes in the steep Mûr-de-Bretagne on stage 2. Martin has won there, but Woods is also suited to the climb, though he admitted that the Tour as a whole is not fully tailored to his skill set.
"It's not the ideal Tour for me," he said. "I think out of the Grand Tours, the Tour is the easiest from a parcours perspective, but just the level and the level of stress that comes into play in this race makes for a much more difficult race than the other two Grand Tours. That being said, although there are not as many mountain-top finishes, we hit the ground running. Stage 1 and 2 are still going to be quite hard and I think you'll see gaps in the GC straight away."
Martin and self-proclaimed ISN road captain Chris Froome both have eight Tours to their name to Woods' one, and the 34-year-old said that their experience will be invaluable during the three weeks of racing, with the likes of André Greipel, Rick Zabel, and Guillaume Boivin also in the squad to do the work in the those tricky – possibly wind-hit – stages throughout the Tour.
"I'm happy with having Dan and Chris at this race," he said. "Dan's in great shape, fresh off a win at the Giro and I think he's going to do well here. He does do well often after a Grand Tour, and that was proven at the Vuelta last year, where he did the Tour before and then came fourth.
"Not just it'll be fun to race with them, but also to glean information from them and learn. It's the same with Chris. He brings such an incredible perspective to racing. I've raced twice with him now and I've learned a lot from him in those two races."
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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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