EF Pro Cycling's remarkable run of stage win success in this year's Grand Tours showed no signs of letting up on Tuesday in the Vuelta a España as Michael Woods outwitted and outpowered rivals as tough as Omar Fraile (Astana Pro Team) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) for a solo victory at Villanueva de Valdegovía.
Woods' second win of 2020, after beating Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) in Tirreno-Adriatico's toughest mountain stage six weeks back, also came partly thanks to his climbing talents and partly thanks to his well-calculated reading of a formidable breakaway.
Having gotten into the main 35-man breakaway of the day, Woods launched a blistering move three kilometres from the summit of the Puerto de Orduña, the main climb of the day, that ultimately whittled the stage leaders down to five riders.
With a minute on the main group but a quarter of that time on their former breakaway companions, the quintet then engaged in a fraught game of cat-and-mouse, culminating in Woods finally breaking clear for good with a little over a kilometre to go.
"I had a bit of luck, I had the legs and I could go for the win," he said later in what was a very succinct summing up of a hugely-complicated win.
The Canadian pointed at his EF logo as he crossed the line, which apart from underlining his own feelings of respect towards the team, the gesture simultaneously reminded fans that in 2020 EF Pro Cycling have now taken stage wins in the Tour de France with Dani Martínez, in the Giro d'Italia with Jonathan Caicedo and Ruben Guerreiro and in the Vuelta with himself - all of them, curiously enough, in mountainous stages.
Woods confirmed later that he had been in a tactical situation of various moving parts of huge importance, given he was both keeping an eye out for teammate Hugh Carthy's GC interests by acting as a watchdog on Valverde - who was using the escape partly to climb back up the overall classification - but also going for a stage win himself, if possible.
Criticised by Fraile afterwards for not working enough when the five went clear, Woods pointed to his multi-tasking as a way of explanation.
"I didn't collaborate, [although] I wanted to. However, Carthy was in the peloton, and Valverde was only three minutes down on general classification. We didn't want to contribute to his gaining more time on GC, otherwise, I would have collaborated.
"Unfortunately for Omar, he got caught up in that, and when we were away together [without Valverde] at one point, I pulled. But if he's complaining, that's his problem."
History in Basque Country
Apart from being another team success in a phenomenally good one for EF Pro Cycling, Woods' victory also revisited his own personal history in multiple ways. His previous victory in the Vuelta was in the Basque Country, in 2018 in the agonisingly steep slopes of Mont Oiz against Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida).
"It's amazing to be winning here again in the Basque Country, this is one of my favourite places to race," Woods commented, although he added that, while understanding the context given the pandemic, his only regret was that there could not be as many fans as there were at Mont Oiz, when he inched towards victory between two deafening human 'walls' of cheering, flag-waving roadside fans.
That same year, Woods was in the winning break with Valverde when the Spaniard took the rainbow jersey in the World Championships, and that influenced his attitude towards the finale in the Vuelta two years on.
Woods pointed out that the last thing he wanted was to reach the finish of the Vuelta stage with Valverde given his well-known turn of speed in small group sprints and the way he had paid the price in Austria.
Going for it alone, as he attempted multiple times on the 19 kilometres between the summit of the Oiz and the finish, was not the only option he had but for sure it was the best one.
Victory on stage 7 Tuesday also represented something of a personal comeback for Woods. The Canadian has had an extremely difficult start to the year when he broke his leg in Paris-Nice. Winning in Tirreno-Adriatico, and then racing strongly in the Ardennes, has already settled that score, up to a point. Much more recently, however, a crash on stage 1 at the Vuelta resulted in broken spokes in a wheel, and he had put paid to his own GC options.
Second on the Vuelta's stage 6 in the Pyrenees where he was outgunned by the Izagirre brothers, Gorka and stage winner Ion (Astana Pro Team), in the Basque Country, 48 hours later it was a different story.
"I had pencilled in this stage a bit," Woods told Spanish TV, "but initially I wasn't meant to get in the breakaway. I was meant to be with Hugh [Carthy]. However, the race just got so crazy and the group got so big I had to go across to make sure we had numbers in it, and it paid off great for me."
Asked if he could go for another win, Woods added, "I'm going to savour this one first, and I'll have a look at the race book after."
Either way, a memorable victory in the Vuelta for Woods is already in the bag.
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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