Through the spring of 2020, Michael Woods wasn’t sure if he’d ever race his bike again.
Six months later, the Canadian was pulling the curtain on one of his most successful seasons to date having bounced back from a broken leg and a Tour de France snub to net a Vuelta a España stage win and land twice more on the podium.
Not bad for a guy who spent months in rehab after a devastating crash at Paris-Nice just days before COVID called time on the racing season.
“After breaking my femur in March, there was certainly a point when I was in the hospital bed where I was questioning whether I’d ever race again,” Woods told VeloNews. “I was confident I’d be able to get active and ride again but not only the physical toll but also the mental toll of breaking my leg, and the way I did it – it was a pretty tough injury to think about.”
After a bumper finale to 2019 that saw him take five top-10s in major one-day races and a victory at Milano-Torino, Woods could sense the momentum tipping his way. After five years in the WorldTour, he was in the final steps of transitioning from a former runner with a massive engine to a bike rider with a racing instinct.
That progress hit a premature speedbump on a sketchy descent in France that left him laid up for the best part of eight weeks.
“In 2019, I learned how to not just be a guy who’s in contention, but how to actually execute on the win,” Woods said in a telephone call.
“Though I was really strong in Milano-Torino when I won, I felt like it had some tactical nuance to it as well, whereas before, I was only able to win through brute strength. That made what happened in Paris-Nice even harder to deal with for me.”
Woods’ return to racing in August was a disappointing one as he flew off the radar in the Italian one-days. The months away from training and racing had taken its toll on Woods’ racing instinct just as much as on the power in his recovering femur.
“I think, had I not crashed in Paris-Nice, I would have had a much more consistent season from the get-go,” Woods said. “I was still behind in August, but I think that ability to race and execute finally continued when my legs got back under me in the fall. I really feel like I’ve learned how to win in the WorldTour now – I feel like a more complete racer.”
The Canadian’s tricky start to the season was compounded by a surprise omission from EF Pro Cycling‘s Tour de France squad in the summer. Woods felt he was back in the form to contest with the best by September. Team officials thought otherwise.
Many had attributed Woods’ Tour snub to the near-concurrent confirmation that he would be racing for Israel Start-Up Nation in 2021. The 34-year-old insisted that wasn’t the case, saying the EF Pro Cycling team headed for France had been confirmed ahead of the news of his forthcoming departure.
“I was pulled off the Tour because the team felt that I wasn’t going to be ready,” Woods said. “I respected their decision, but I totally disagreed with them. We just didn’t see eye to eye on that one.”
Woods didn’t get the opportunity to confirm his comeback in France. Instead, he more-than proved it with victory in an attritional stage through the Tuscan hills of Tirreno-Adriatico. However, the Tour was where he had hoped to be, and three months later, is what he feels he needed.
“I felt like I would have had a bigger and better season if I’d have done the Tour,” he explained. “I think I was just missing that extra layer of fitness going into the world championships. I felt like I was disadvantaged compared to the guys that did the Tour.”
After coming close but failing to deliver through the week of the world championships in Imola, and the Ardennes classics – a trio of races almost tailor-made to Woods’ aggressive climbing chops – it finally all came together in his long-loved hunting ground of the Spanish Basque country.
The Canadian’s new-found tactical savvy saw him outfox his companions in a stellar breakaway quintet on the roads toward Villanueva de Valdegovia to take the second Vuelta stage of his career. A close second-place to Tim Wellens one week later proved that Woods’ pivot from runner to racer was complete.
“The win at the Vuelta was the one I’m most proud of, just because it did require some tactical savviness,” he said. “It’s not my greatest win because I’ve had other wins that are more significant, but this one was certainly my greatest in terms of how I won. It showed I know how to race.”
Next season, Woods will be racing alongside the likes of Chris Froome and Dan Martin at a supercharged Israel Start-Up Nation. Though Woods’ transition to a wily racer may be complete, he feels there’s always more to be learned as he pedals alongside two celebrated veterans in 2021.
“It’s super exciting,” he said about sharing a wheel with Froome and Martin. “I feel like there’s a lot of things I can learn from them both. I’ve always thrived off of racing with great riders – I find they always bring my level up. I’m really excited to see how my game improves because of them.”