Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) went into the Vuelta a Espana trying to put any ideas of the general classification to the back of his mind. On Sunday he rode into Madrid with his first ever top 10 Grand Tour finish in just the second three-week race of his career.
Woods and his sports director, Juan Manuel Garate, made an important point of not thinking about the general classification until it became apparent on stage 10 that he was able to mix it with the big guns at the pointy end of proceedings. After a bruising Vuelta, Woods finished the race in seventh overall, 8:27 behind the eventual winner Chris Froome (Team Sky).
"It feels amazing. I'm really happy to be across the line. The last eight laps hurt a lot. The legs were feeling terrible and I definitely felt like I'd done a Grand Tour," Woods told Cyclingnews after completing the final stage in Madrid.
"It's really special. I know when we talked before it started, I was playing down any chances and any aspirations of doing the GC. Juan Manuel Garate my director was really big on taking that pressure off of me and just focusing on stage wins. We didn't get a stage win but I feel like the seventh place is as good as a stage win. I feel like the accomplishment is as good, and I'm just super satisfied."
Making it into the final top 10 was no easy feat with two of the toughest climbs in any Vuelta featured in the final week. After slipping down the standings in the time trial, a strong ride on Los Machucos sent him back up again. A solid ride on the Angliru on the penultimate stage was enough to seal the deal for the Canadian. Froome said in his post-race press conference that it was the hardest Grand Tour he'd ridden and Woods would attest to that.
Another talk with Garate helped Woods to enjoy the experience, and saw him finish the Vuelta with a bang. "It was pretty relentless, every day was a test. It felt like the stages didn't really say that it would be this crazy hard course but it ended up playing out that way where every day was a test," said Woods.
"Every day in the last week, I just put out the best numbers I've ever put out. I had a really good conversation with Juanma about enjoying the experience and not putting so much pressure on myself, because he started to see me put weight on the GC and stress about not missing any gaps. He just told me to enjoy the moment and the process of racing and that really flipped a switch and then I started enjoying where I was and the result in the last couple of days reflected that. I was climbing really well on long climbs. I was finishing right up there in the shorter, steep stuff. I was really happy with how the first week went."
Unfortunately for Woods and the team, they were sideswiped by news in the opening week of the race that a potential new team sponsor had just pulled out. Woods had not long penned a new deal to secure his place for the next two seasons, but now he found himself having to look for a new team. Things were eventually sorted out with new sponsor, EF Education First, announced just in time for the crucial Angliru stage, but the two weeks of uncertainty took its toll.
"It big time affected me. I had a contract with JV and Cannondale for the next two years and I was really happy with that contract. I came in here to this race, thinking that I would be with the team over the next years and I was really excited about it," Woods told Cyclingnews. "Then, all of a sudden, the night before stage 8, I got a call from my agent to say that my contract wasn't going to be happening. I lost a lot of sleep that night and the next day I raced like an idiot. I didn't race smart at all. I attacked at the base of the climb and I just didn't play it cool and ended up losing time.
"Again, Juanma was the guy who cooled me down and made me focus on the race. He really rallied the guys and the following day everyone on the team stepped up and we decided that we would show the Cannondale colours and we rode the front and I had one of the best performances on the bike. I think that we rose above it all and in the end, everything turned out great, JV secured a sponsor, I'm signed with the team for the next two years."
Madrid was an opportunity for Woods to reflect on what he had achieved and confirmation that he was in the right place.
"I'm really focused on savouring this, but for the future it has given me a lot more confidence and really showed me that I belong here."