FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Cannondale-Drapac’s roller coaster Vuelta a España ride, resulting in a king of the mountains jersey and a seventh place overall finish, marks a new beginning for the American WorldTour team.
Canadian Michael Woods, in only his second grand tour at 30 years old, placed seventh at 8:27 behind overall winner Chris Froome (Sky) Sunday night in Madrid. His Italian teammate Davide Villella carried the mountains jersey all the way through the bumpy three-week race.
The news arrived two weeks ago that the team faced closure in 2018 without a new sponsor and management had released its riders from their contracts. Woods, Villella, and the others not only had to deal with that uncertainty, but the race’s hardships. They only found out on the eve of the Vuelta’s Madrid finish that management secured a new 2018 deal.
“Before [stage 9], we had a long talk on the bus,” Woods explained. “We were all reeling from the bad news. We were distracted. Juanma [sports director Juan Manuel Gárate] stood up on the bus and gave a really emotional speech. He told us that he understood if we needed to seek results and focus on ourselves, individually. And then he presented option two, that we work as a team and focus on our original goals. Every guy on that bus raised his hand for that second option.
“Then we got off the bus and rode on the front all day. We proved that we belonged and that we weren’t going to go down without a fight. We raced like champions. I didn’t win, which would have been the perfect ending, but I had the best race of my life up until that point to come away with third.”
Woods raced head-to-head with Froome that day and many others. He explained, though wanting to stay with Slipstream, that he was also considering other teams so that he would not be unemployed in 2018. He explained how “it was difficult to manage both” and that he tried to focus just on the race.
Froome took note of the team in stage 9. “I think they can take a lot away from that [ride],” Froome said.” They committed their faith in Woods, the team was on the front all day and we are still talking about it. I’d like to see more of that racing from them.”
Woods added, “We could all feel a sense of pride within the group, and we got a lot of respect from the peloton. The way we rode allowed us to move forward with our heads high and with positive momentum we could draw from throughout the race.”
Villella already has plans to join team Astana in 2018. However, he fought alongside Woods daily to make sure he accumulated enough mountain points to stand on the Madrid podium with the white and blue polka-dot jersey.
Their rides complemented the backroom staff’s search for a new backer. Manager Jonathan Vaughters welcomed EF Education First for 2018 and Woods confirmed he would ride for two more years with the team.
Woods started in the sport late but always had the team’s faith. Cannondale-Drapac allowed him to race his first grand tour this May at the Giro d’Italia and to lead the Vuelta team.
“I think the biggest lesson learned here is that I’m able to ride with some of the best riders in the world,” Woods added. “Prior to this race, I thought I might have the legs. I was putting out numbers that showed I was capable of having a performance like this, but I didn’t yet have it between the ears. I really found my mojo during this race.”
Said Gárate, “Until stage 10, we never mentioned the words ‘general classification’ to Mike. We didn’t call him our leader. I didn’t forget him, but I wasn’t showing that we were taking care of him because I didn’t want to put that pressure on his shoulders from the first day. It was only after the uphill final on stage 9 that we started talking about the GC.”
The work paid off on the road and back in the United States. Two weeks after the bombshell news dropped of the team’s imminent demise, the team has a new sponsor, a mountains jersey, and a top-10 finish in the Vuelta a España.
“I’m really proud of how the riders, staff, and everyone managed the sad news,” Gárate continued. “What we did here and the way we did it, despite the extra mental challenges, says a lot about who we are as a team and how we work together.”