Michael Woods's breakthrough victory in Vuelta a España takes on deeper significance has he reveals details of family tragedy.
Now we know why. An emotional Woods dedicated his breakthrough stage victory to his stillborn son who died two months ago.
“My wife and I, we lost a son in stillbirth two months ago,” a tearful Woods said on Spanish TV. “We lost a little guy, his name was Hunter. The whole time I was coming up the climb, I was just thinking of him.”
The EF Education First-Drapac rider was overcome with emotion at the finish line in what was an incredibly difficult and hard-fought stage victory. Woods came into this Vuelta a España hoping to win his first grand tour stage.
After close calls in the Giro d’Italia and last year’s Vuelta, Woods was on the march again in a breakaway in Wednesday’s brutal climbing stage finishing atop the foggy Balcón de Bizkaia.
After finishing second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège this spring, Woods’s professional milestone, his first WorldTour victory of his young road racing career, was overshadowed by his intensely personal emotions.
Woods astutely followed moves from his rivals, but he was riding with an extra gear in the final kilometers.
“There were so many people on side of the road today just screaming my name. My director Juanma [Garate] was on the radio and in the last 500m he said, do this for your family,” Woods said with tears welling up in his eyes.
“I wanted to win so bad for him, and I did … I did.”
Woods was overwhelmed with emotional and stepped off the camera. The 31-year-old Canadian had kept the family tragedy out of the public eye, but he wanted to publicly dedicate the victory to his family.
“It’s hard to describe — I won,” Woods said. “I won.”
The victory caps an amazing personal and professional journey for Woods. A former world-class middle-distance runner, the Canadian’s dream of competing in the Olympics ended with a foot injury. In his mid-20s, the naturally gifted Woods took up cycling as part of his rehab. The bike soon fed his competitive streak and he quickly moved up the ranks. After catapulting through the U.S. scene, Woods’ natural motor earned him a WorldTour contract in 2016. He quickly proved he had the mettle to compete at the elite level, but found victories elusive.
“The margin between the best and the worst rider is so minimal,” he said. “It’s so difficult to win. Even when you’re in the best shape of your life. The WorldTour is so hard to win at.”
Though he struggled early in Europe, especially on descents and in positioning, he surpassed expectations at every turn. He punched into the top-10 overall in last year’s Vuelta with seventh and came close to stage victories in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta. This spring, he was second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and he knew it was only a matter of time.
This summer, however, he suffered a terrible personal loss worse than any pain he felt on the bike. His wife was 37 weeks pregnant when their son was stillborn. Just a month before, Woods’s father-in-law died. Through it all, he kept training and racin, and kept his personal losses close to his chest.
Those emotions came pouring out on one of the steepest and most painful finales of this year’s Vuelta.
“My wife and I lost our son two months ago,” Woods said. “It was really really difficult. We were just so excited to bring him into this world. His name was Hunter, and it’s been a really hard year for us. I really wanted to win for him and win for my wife.”
Woods becomes just the second Canadian to win a stage at the Vuelta a España. He will carry momentum into the world championships and into the fall Italian classics. All the success is even sweeter after overcoming personal setbacks harder than any mountain pass.