Woods will take the leader’s armband for team Israel Start-Up Nation at this year’s Tour in a role that will see him both hunt for stage wins and battle for a high finish on GC.
It’s a dual role that will force the Canadian to navigate the sizable hurdles of Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, and a supercharged Ineos Grenadiers on the roads of France. Woods knows the Tour could be suffocated by these three big players – but that won’t put a stopper on his ambition.
- Woods handed Tour leadership as ‘Project Froome’ fails
- Ineos Grenadiers takes stongest ever team to the Tour
- Pogačar sets tone ahead of Tour defense
“Pogačar and Roglič are above everyone else in their ability. The only time Ineos doesn’t win is when those two are racing,” Woods told VeloNews.
“So it’s going to be quite difficult to crack the podium. That’s a dream goal for me, but a more reasonable goal would be between fourth and eighth. I think that’s a reflection of what could be a two-tier race.
“With a three-week race there are so many things that can go wrong, riders can crack. If I’m really lucky the sky’s the limit and I have a chance of the podium. But that really is more a dream goal than a realistic one.”
Mike: "I am looking forward to taking on the GC role. We will be a force to be reckoned with."
— Israel Start-Up Nation / Israel Cycling Academy (@TeamIsraelSUN) June 14, 2021
Woods will be one of a long list of GC riders that could be left picking for the scraps behind Pogačar, Roglič, and Ineos Grenadiers at this year’s Tour.
After only receiving a late call-up for GC duty when Israel Start-Up Nation backed out of its project to send Chris Froome to a fifth yellow jersey this summer, 34-year-old Woods won’t be sacrificing his original stage-hunting goal in the chase for an unlikely Tour de France podium.
“I’ve only known for a few weeks [that I’d lead the team]. It’s something that has evolved over the course of the year,” Woods said Friday.
“Originally my plan was to come in and support Chris and ride for stage wins. But the way my season’s been going, the team was keen on having me try a GC run. Still, my big focus will be on stage wins and the GC will be secondary.”
The reshuffle of Israel Start-Up Nation’s deck came after Woods and Froome charted opposing trajectories through the early season.
Woods came out of the gate hot in his first race of the season with a stage win at Tour des Alpes Maritimes, and a string of podium placings and Ardennes near-misses followed soon afterward.
While Froome fumbled his way through the early summer, Woods finished in the top-six at both the prestigious Tour de Suisse and Tour de Romandie. And with that, Woods stamped his ticket to Tour leadership.
After an outstanding performance, Woods
– wins the general mountains classification;
– moves up to fifth in the GC;
– and finished second in the last stage!#YallaISN #RacingForChange pic.twitter.com/hjiSdqiqzJ
— Israel Start-Up Nation / Israel Cycling Academy (@TeamIsraelSUN) June 13, 2021
Woods acknowledged what he called the “honor” of leading a Tour team also set to include celebrated veterans Froome, Dan Martin, and André Greipel. However, he’s not going to let that get in the way of his quest for the Tour stage win he’s long dreamt of.
“One of my life goals is to win a stage at the Tour de France,” he said. “I think it would really add depth to my palmarès and certify me as a proper pro that’s had a successful career.
“I’d sacrifice the GC for stage wins – that is my big objective … But I don’t think the two are exclusive.”
Channeling his Ardennes spirit
Pogačar and Roglič are not only the two GC favorites for this year’s Tour. The duo is also likely to stand in Woods’ path to stage success. The pair both scored stage wins on the way to their Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana titles last year, and it seems a certainty that a Slovenian will be the first across the line at least once over the three weeks in France.
Woods is hoping to summon his Liège-Bastogne-Liège legs in the quest to break a potential Slovenian deadlock.
The Canadian’s fierce attack in the finale of Liège this spring distanced Roglič and forced the final split that went on to contest the five-up sprint.
Although Woods was outkicked in the final hundred meters of spring’s final monument, the experience was enough to show him he’s near unmatchable when the road points uphill.
— Liège-Bastogne-Liège (@LiegeBastogneL) April 25, 2021
“Pogačar and Roglič are certainly operating at a higher level but it is possible to beat them – I’ve done it on occasion and I’ve shown if you’re on a good day you can outclimb these guys.
“I did that in Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year. I lost in the sprint but I felt like I was the strongest climber there.”
Three weeks in France eases pressure on one day in Toyko
Woods’ elevation to Israel Start-Up Nation’s Tour captain will see him fighting two corners as he boxes for stage wins and the GC.
Fortunately for Woods, there’s no potential compromise to his season goal of the Olympic Games.
“My big focus is still on the Olympic Games, I want to have success there,” he said. “I know in the past that I’ve only improved by running a good grand tour, whether it’s been in GC or not, so I think [the Tour] will actually be a good preparation for the Olympics.”
While some road racers see the Tour as an untimely obstacle ahead of once-in-lifetime tilts at the Games, Woods sees three weeks in France as potentially unlocking Olympic success.
“If anything it will take pressure off the Olympics. I find running a grand tour or GC gets you in the mode of racing and you put less emphasis on each day as the race progresses,” he said.
“It will almost turn the Olympics into just another race day – which is the mentality I want to have going into that race.”