In 2013 Michael Woods was a first-year pro on Continental team Garneau-Quebecor. That same year Alex Howes raced the Vuelta a España, and Rigoberto Uran won a stage at the Giro d’Italia, finishing second overall. This week the three men will spearhead Cannondale-Drapac’s ambitions at Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Woods, 30, is gleaning as much knowledge as he can from his experienced teammates. That tutelage may pay off for Woods in Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne, where he will race as Cannondale’s team leader.
“For Alex [Howes] it’s been an exercise in frustration the first while riding with me,” Woods said. “He’s been riding for so many years, he’s such an experienced pro, and you’ve got this guy who’s just making all these rookie mistakes all the time. He’s been really good with me. Same with Simon [Clarke]; they’re both amazing positioners. I’ve learned to lean on those two guys. It’s paying off big time.”
Woods’s lack of experience has not slowed down his speedy progression. He rode to fifth place overall in the 2016 Santos Tour Down Under, his WorldTour debut. Later that spring he sprinted to 12th place at Flèche; had it not been for poor positioning at the base of the Mur de Huy he could have likely finished higher. Woods is acutely aware of how his inexperience holds him back in situations like Flèche’s nervy, high-speed run to the line. That’s where Cannondale-Drapac’s veterans have helped the Canadian.
“Last year I really messed up that run-in,” Woods adds, recalling Flèche Wallonne 2016. “I had the legs to do really well, but I started 30th in the peloton. I think Simon was more gutted than I was.”
Howes believes Woods can be a major threat at Flèche. The pressure is on the team to position him properly for the sprint up the final climb. “The plan is if we put him where he needs to be he’ll be there at the top of the hill,” Howes said. “There’s no pressure on Mike [Woods] right now; the pressure is on me and Simon Clarke.”
So far in 2017 Woods has learned by example, following Howes and other teammates in key moments at the races At last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he found himself in the lead group after attacking on the stage 5 summit finish to Eibar. He finished fourth. Uran also made the group and finished third. Woods said he is learning from Uran’s positioning in the peloton.
“The guy’s smooth as butter, it’s insane,” Woods said of Uran. “He can just kind of float the peloton so well. His influence over me has really paid off.”
On that day in Pais Vasco, Woods also got an up-close look at four-time defending Flèche champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), a top favorite for Wednesday. Valverde won the stage 5 sprint at the top of the Usartzako climb and won the Pais Vasco overall with a strong time trial the next day.
“[Valverde] is gonna be super-tough to beat. It’s his race to lose really,” Woods said. But at the same time, facing off with a rider who has won more than 100 races didn’t faze Woods.
“It was cool to be there, feel really good, see [Alberto] Contador, Valverde suffering just as much as I was,” Woods said. “You watch that on TV when you’re on the trainer. You kind of imagine … It’s one thing to imagine. It’s another to do it. You have a bit of an out-of-body experience.”
Inexperience ordinarily presents challenges, but in some unusual ways, Woods benefits from being in just his second season as a WorldTour pro. He recognizes the danger of Flèche’s high-speed run to the Mur de Huy, but doesn’t dwell on it. Howes, on the other hand is more frank about the risks: “That one scares me more than just about any race out there.”
Regardless of the danger or the stiff competition, Howes and Woods are confident in the team’s racing dynamics for the Ardennes. The team enters the bloc of racing with confidence, boosted by Howes’s KOM jersey win at Pais Vasco. Both men said Uran has kept the mood light around the team by telling entertaining stories at the dinner table. Woods may not have decades of experience like Valverde, but he knows the value of trust, something essential in that 80kph run at the Mur de Huy following Howes and Clarke through the bunch.