Of the trio of riders shadowing Chris Froome (Team Sky) on the Vuelta a España's first summit finish, Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) was perhaps the least-known face, but as the Canadian climber said afterwards, he was more than pleased to be in such illustrious company.
Woods is tackling his second Grand Tour this year and it's the second of his career, too, making the Vuelta a España a real voyage in the unknown. And although the GC is not, on paper, an objective for him this year, racing so well both in Andorra on Monday and at Santa Lucia on Wednesday bodes very well for his stage win aspirations on the eight summit finishes still to come in this year's race.
Talking outside the team bus after stage 5, Woods said that finishing on a climb alongside Contador, Froome and Chaves "gave me a huge amount of confidence."
"Those guys are the best climbers in the world – they're legends – so to be up there was pretty special," Woods said.
"I've had a couple of climbs this season and last season where I've been with those guys or guys like that in the Tour Down Under with Richie [Porte] and Alberto Contador and [Alejandro] Valverde in País Vasco. But to continue being able to climb with those guys on the really steep pitches, it really bolsters the confidence and makes me feel pretty happy."
The climb itself was definitely one for Woods, with some scarily steep ramps of up to 20 per cent.
"As always, the steeper it is, the better it is for me," he said. "I feel I can run up the pitches when it's that steep, whereas I suffer a bit more when it was a lesser gradient. Every time it was steeper, it's almost like a respite for me. I get better recovery."
On an excellent day all around for Cannondale-Drapac, Woods gained a spot overall and is now lying in 10th place on GC, while after a long day in the break, teammate Davide Villella has buttressed his hold on the King of the Mountains title, with 30 points, 19 more than second-placed Lluis Mas (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA).
"The team goal is to win a stage here. The GC would be a bonus, but my time trialling is not up to snuff with all the other guys I was climbing with today. So I'd like to target a stage win so how that plays out, whether from the break or from contending with the GC guys, I'd like to target at least one." Woods said.
In terms of the climb itself, Woods said that it was not just a question – as it so often can be on steep finishes – of every man finding his own pace. "There were a lot of tactics still playing out, guys were still marking each other, Sky still had a huge team there with two kilometres to go, [Gianni] Moscon did an amazing job and I had to fight with him a bit because I'm less known than those guys and obviously they're trying to protect Chris Froome. So there were tactics, and I think I benefit from not having to mark so many moves because I'm not a threat to Chris Froome on the GC."
He recognised, too, that for now, he's profited from flying under the radar a little and not being identified as a potential threat. "Totally. I've benefited from that for the last year. There's going to be a point when I'm going to be a bit more of a marked man, but I'm enjoying that opportunity still."
Looking further ahead, Woods is as determined as he can be that this may have been the first time he's raised the bar in the Vuelta a España, but it won't be the last. But at the same time he recognises that this is all a voyage in the dark.
"This is my second Grand Tour this year. I'm venturing into the unknown. I did a really good training camp with Alex Howes in Colorado. We were both really flying afterwards and he did really great at the Colorado Classic, and I'm going really well right now, so, it's like, keep on riding the high."
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.
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