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Woods mulls Grand Tour options prior to Tokyo Olympics bid

Michael Woods Israel Start-Up Nation
Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) (Image credit: NOA ARNON (Cycling Academy LTD))

This time last year Michael Woods (Israel Start-Up Nation) already had a plane ticket booked for a planned late Sunday night dash from Paris and the Tour de France finale to Tokyo and a crack at the Olympic Games road race.

However, for reasons we all know only too well, cycling's usual summer racing program in 2020, Woods red-eye flight plan, and indeed plans for last year's Olympics, all went up in smoke. And right now in 2021 and with a 'new racing normality' in operation, the Canadian is far more cautious about his approach path to the slopes of Mount Fuji this summer.

"The big factor is the quarantine in the Olympics," Woods told Cyclingnews from the ongoing Israel Start-Up Nation training camp in Spain, something yet to be fully confirmed by the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee.

"I think if there is no quarantine, definitely I'll do the Tour. But if there is a quarantine I want to have a Grand Tour in my legs prior to the Olympics, whether it's the Giro d'Italia, or I try and figure something out with the Tour and a possible early departure."

Prior to making any decision, Woods would obviously talk through possible options with Israel Start-Up Nation, given the squad are currently planning on a major general classification battle in the Tour with Chris Froome

The Canadian recognises that while leaving the Tour early would be beneficial personally if there was a quarantine in place: "You don't want to put a guy like Chris into a disadvantage if he's in a good GC position by losing a guy in the last week. It's tricky.

"So we'll play that one by ear until we get a better idea of whether there's going to be this quarantine. As I think we have all come to learn, it's almost impossible to make long term plans with COVID."

As for the here and now, Woods is currently at Israel Start-Up Nation's eight-day training camp in Girona, and the 34-year-old has nothing but enthusiasm for his first team change since the winter of 2015 when he joined the squad which was Cannondale-Drapac and is now EF Education-Nippo.

"It's like my first day at school, meeting everybody and learning new names and trying on new kit. I'm enjoying the change of scenery," he said.

Over the winter, Woods had some more familiar landscapes to appreciate when he and his family headed back to Canada. In his own case that was for the first time back home in over a year, while for his young daughter it was her first ever visit to her father's country.

All in all, his return to training and his 'day job' has been slower than usual, Woods says, because "I had some surgery to remove screws from my femur" – broken in Paris-Nice.

"So I took a lot more time off and I'm going to start the season later, at the Faun Ardeche Classic in France [February 28]. Then I'll head over to Italy for Tirreno-Adriatico, before doing Pais Vasco and Ardennes.

"The fact we finished the Vuelta on November 8 means that even if I was off the bike for two months straight, I didn't lose that much fitness. I'm obviously not in my best form, but I did some efforts and work-outs recently and I was surprised how good the numbers were relative to how comparatively little training I've done."

2021 ambitions

After strong prior performances in both La Flèche Wallonne, including third place last year, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he was second in 2019, Woods will now be racing alongside a former winner of La Doyenne, Dan Martin. But Woods argues that, historically, strength in numbers for the toughest hilly Classics in Belgium have only ever been a good thing.

"We've got lots of options and I'm really excited by it, I have a lot to learn from Dan, he's won Liège, he's been at the front of that race and Flèche Wallonne for years now.

"Liège particularly could go better with another teammate at a high level. Using Bob Jungels as a reference, the year he won [2019] he had Julian Alaphilippe as his foil and could go long.

"Then when Dan won it [2013], he had a really strong Ryder Hesjedal with him putting in a late attack. And the time I first cracked the top 10 at Liège [in 2017], the squad were firing on all cylinders, Davide Formolo did a long bomb attack, Davide Villella and I were in the break. A strong team makes it more exciting and I tend to thrive off other guys riding well."

Taking a Monument in the next three years is one of Woods' goals, as are stage wins, and, of course, the Olympics this July. But he is, he says, relinquishing any battle for personal Grand Tour GC success in favour of working for a victory in one of those races with his team-mates.

"For now those GC ambitions are secondary to individual stages, and I think it's very difficult to do difficult to do both, now, unless you're Primož Roglič. The WorldTour is hyperspecific, and I could maybe get a podium position on GC but it would be really challenging to do something like winning.

"So the next best thing is to be part of a team that does win one. And I'd love to be part of the team with Dan or Chris going after that victory."

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.