Michael Woods is returning to the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah after a two-year absence with some unfinished business left on the table. Woods won a stage here in 2015 and finished second overall to current EF Education First-Drapac teammate Joe Dombrowski, but the 31-year-old Canadian told Cyclingnews that he's a much different rider than the one who raced Utah in 2015.
After the 2015 season, Woods jumped to the WorldTour with Cannondale, the precursor of his EF-Drapac team. Since then the rider who came to cycling relatively late after a collegiate running career has finished 5th overall at the 2016 Tour Down Under in his first race with the team, was seventh in the 2017 Vuelta a Espana, was second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year and second in a stage of the Giro d'Italia in May.
"I'm definitely a different bike rider than when I came here in 2015," Woods said. "It was good riding those courses just a few days ago and reliving the race from 2015 and remembering all the things I didn't know and all the things I did know, and just being excited about what I can do now."
Woods said his greatest asset now is his perspective and his much-improved ability to be in the right place in the peloton at the right time.
"I'm really good relative to where I was in 2015," he said. "I see myself in the peloton, where I am position-wise. I was terrible at positioning, even in this race where positioning is not that important.
"I started the climb to Snowbird too far back," he said. "I started Empire Pass not in the greatest position, but this time around I've got really good guys here and my positioning skills have improved a ton."
Woods signed with Optum Pro Cycling [now Rally - ed.] in 2015 after several seasons with smaller Canadian teams and a half season with the American 5-Hour Energy squad. It was with Optum, however, that Woods really blossomed as a road rider, discovering the potential he could have in a professional cycling career. But it wasn't an easy or fast process.
"I started every race in 2015 not knowing if I could finish, not knowing where I should be, just kind of being out to lunch," he said. "I'd be in good position sometimes, be in terrible position other times.
"The stage 5 that I won [in 2015], I started out in 30th position on the bottom of the final climbs and just lucked out that I got on Dion Smith's wheel and he paced it well," Woods said. "So by the time the other guys hit out and died I was able to catch them and go, and that was the only reason I won the stage, just because of a bit of luck and some good legs, whereas now I know where I need to be."
Woods acknowledged he still has a lot to learn, but he said he's a much more confident rider now than the last time he was in Utah.
Woods is at the race this year on the same team with Dombrowski, the rider he finished second to in 2015, but he told Cyclingnews that despite having a former champion at the race and on his team, he was in Utah this year to try and win.
"Obviously, I've come here to try and win, and so has Joe, and we also have Hugh Carthy, who is a great climber, so we have a really good stable of climbers," Woods said. "For me, I'm prepping for the Vuelta, so this is a really good stepping stone for the preparation. I haven't raced for two months, so I'm also eager to see where the legs are."
Indeed, Woods last turned the pedals over in a race at the Giro in May, when he finished 19th overall. He said since then he's been relaxing and training, preparing for the second half of his season.
"I took a week off after the Giro and kind of settled down for some rest," he said. "I had a pretty heavy start to the season, but also a lot of illness. I had some issues during the Giro. Also, I had some lung issues as well, so I just needed to recover a bit. I've had a pretty relaxing last few months, and now I'm ready to go."
Woods led the race for a day in 2015 after winning the Salt Lake City circuit on stage 5, but he ceded the jersey to Dombrowski on the Queen stage to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort.
Now he's targeting the Snowbird stage and the final day in Park City, which climbs over Empire Pass. But he also still has a hopeful spot in his heart for the Salt Lake City stage, despite a new finish that lacks the multiple ramps to the line as in 2015.
"If the Salt Lake City stage was the same as last time, I'd be really jazzed about that," he said. "But I think it still has a short uphill finish. So I'm interested in that one as well as obviously Snowbird and the day following up Empire Pass."
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