In four years on the WorldTour with EF Pro Cycling and its earlier incarnations, Canadian Michael Woods has taken three wins, including an emotional stage victory at the 2018 Vuelta a España, a stage at the Herald Sun Tour and his only one-day win at the 2019 Milano-Torino. He's been second and fifth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and he was fifth last year at Il Lombardia.
During an interview late last week, the 33-year-old looked ahead at a crucial season, reflected on among recently become a father, commented on watching his teammates finish 1-2-3 in the Tour Colombia 2.1 and considered what might be different for him in 2020.
This interview took place before any races were cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak and before EF Pro Cycling's calendar was affected, although Woods' team was still on the Paris-Nice start list as of publication, and he was looking likely to be part of the line-up at the French stage race, which starts on Sunday.
CN: Are you still going to be aiming at the three peaks of form you were discussing with my colleagues over the winter?
CN: Looking back at 2019, I read that you felt that although you were more consistent, the wins weren't always there. Will there be any changes in strategy reflecting that in 2020?
Woods: I think it's going to be more about quality over quantity. In 2019, I had a lot of consistency. I had two wins, one of which was, finally, a one-day [Milano-Torino]. A Monument, the World Championships and the Olympics are my three big goals for this year.
CN: More, say, than a stage of the Tour de France?
Woods: Well, I wouldn't say no to that either [laughs].
CN: I understand you have your flight booked out of Paris on the Sunday night after the Tour already, to get to Tokyo as early as possible, but there's a lot of talk about how the gap between the Tour's end and the road race in the Games is going to be a very short one and may make it tough to recover from jetlag in time. What do you think?
Woods: I always get better over the course of a Grand Tour, and my best results have always come off the back of doing one. So it's hard for me to not take that risk and not do a Grand Tour prior to the Olympics. I think for me it'd be more of a risk not to do the Tour. There are a lot of riders in the WorldTour who get broken down by the three weeks of a Grand Tour, but I'm one of those who actually responds well to the load of it. For me, I get better with that kind of workload, and if I recover properly, I can fly. That's really hard to replicate at home in training.
Also, when you're in a Grand Tour, everything inside the team is orientated around recovery, plus you've got great meals by our team chef, Olga Belenko, and our nutritionist, Nigel Mitchell. There's the support of a full team staff in terms of soigneurs, chiros, doctors… Taking all those things into consideration, it'd be a mistake not to do the Tour.
CN: The big difference with last year, programme-wise, seems to be that you're starting a whole lot later, with your first race in 2019 being the Tour Down Under. Is that simply because your whole calendar is so backloaded this year?
Woods: The biggest reason is my baby. We had a little baby girl, named Max, a month ago. The team's been phenomenal, just making sure I'm home and around for what has been the most important thing in my life, for Max and my wife, Elly. When I talked it over with [EF manager] Charly Wegelius, he wanted to make sure I was home with my family and not stressed out at a race worrying about them. So I feel really lucky to have had that leave.
Also, though, it does fit in well with the main focus of this year, which is going to be the summer to the end of the season. I want to be going well all the way through, from the Tour to Lombardia, which is going to be difficult. Last year, I didn't do a huge number of race days, but I was expected to be race leader and do well at every race I did, from Down Under all the way through to the Japan Cup. I didn't feel like I needed a break afterwards, but I'm glad I took it just to prepare for what's going to be mentally a very challenging year.
CN: So the first peak of form comes at Liège?
CN: Which of the Ardennes Classics will you be doing, given you've had a bit of an on-off relationship with Flèche Wallonne?
Woods: Flèche is certainly my white whale. I've finished top 10 in the last three editions of Liège, so I think it's a race that suits me. But I still haven't managed to master Flèche. It's a great race for me, too; I just haven't managed to figure it out still.
Then I will be doing Amstel as well, which is a very challenging race. It's not such a good one for me as the other two, but with guys like we have, like Alberto Bettiol and Simon Clarke, who finished second there last year, we have such a solid team for that. I'd love to be part of it.
CN: Is there any chance of a repeat of the Vuelta some time in the future, instead of those Italian one-days?
Woods: I love the Italian Classics and it's a natural end of the season for me now. So I'm going to be really focused on those, but the biggest goal this year, at least, will be the Worlds. From what I've been told, it's similar, if not harder, than Innsbruck [where Woods got bronze -Ed.]. I'm pretty excited about that.
CN: Last year, you made your debut at the Tour de France. Do you think, if it's at all possible given that it's the Tour, that you'll be able to take it more calmly this year with that experience of 2019?
Woods: The Tour is so important to my team, and any WorldTour team, and it's the reason why the sport is as big as it is. I realise after being there last year, I have to be there again and I want to be there again. It's racing at the highest level of the sport. I'm not just more excited, but I'm more relaxed, as I know what I need to do to do well there.
CN: And beyond 2020, any news on the bigger picture?
Woods: I still have another year on my current contract after this one, and I'm just enjoying being on the team. You can see from the early season results, we really have found ourselves at the team; we've got some mojo right now. We were at team camp watching the team get the top-three places in Colombia, which was really special. So I think we're poised for some even bigger results in the months to come.
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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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