Imposter syndrome can hit all of us, even Michael Woods.
Woods, as is well reported, came to cycling late after initially beginning his sporting career as a runner. He swapped running for cycling aged 25, due to a persistent injury, and began racing at Continental level a couple of years later before joining the WorldTour aged 29.
While he certainly had the fitness to be up there, the late start to his racing career meant he had a lot to learn.
“When I first started as a pro, I felt like an imposter in a lot of ways. I really didn’t understand how the races work, I didn’t understand my role in the races,” Woods told VeloNews in a recent call. “In the last three years, I’m really starting to see the race really well, understand the tactics, understand why guys are doing things, and be able to predict it better.”
Making improvements in how he reads races and performs tactically has allowed Woods space to appreciate more of the environment that he is in and make the most of it.
“I’m not just focused on myself but focused on the tactics and the fun stuff. This year particularly has been really fun in that sense,” Woods said. “I see the race, how it’s going to unfold and then I’m at the pointy end of it. I’m watching [Tadej] Pogačar, [Primož] Roglič, and all these great riders attack, and I’m right there with them, which for me is exhilarating.
“I realize now at 35 that I’m very lucky to be in a position where I get to be one of the best at something in the world and interact with the best at something in the world, and I might not have an opportunity to do that in anything else. I might as well cherish that and enjoy and try and try and be even better at it.”
Woods’ enjoyment of bike racing is such that he’s considering extending his career further than he ever thought he would. The Canadian rider almost hung up his racing wheels last season after a terrible crash, but he’s since got the bug back and is pondering signing another contract after his current three-year deal at Israel Start-Up Nation runs out in 2023.
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It’s not just the extra racing years he’s keen on. He wants to expose his young children to the multi-national European lifestyle that his career has afforded him.
“When I crashed in 2020 Paris-Nice, I was considering retiring at the end of my contract with EF,” he said. “Then COVID happened, I came back better than I had anticipated, faster than anticipated, and really enjoyed racing after my crash. When I signed with ISN, I signed for three years and was thinking I’ll end my career after three years.
“But this last year, in particular, I’ve really enjoyed racing with the team, and my wife and I really enjoy our lifestyle in Europe. We have an awesome place in Andorra, we get to live in mountains and do amazing activities all the time, and the kids are being subjected to all these different languages.
“We both realize we should take advantage of it for longer, and I feel like I’m just getting better. So, for all those reasons, let’s try and go for at least another three, four, even five years.”
A blessing in disguise
While Woods says he felt like an imposter early in his career, he has learned his trade quickly. He is now 35 and his career peak has come as many of his generation are winding down.
With a limited number of years left on the proverbial clock of his career, Woods might wish that he had found cycling earlier. He does sometimes wonder how good he could have been if he’d taken up racing earlier, but there’s a part of him that believes it was a bit of a blessing to find it later in life.
“I’m not sure if I’d be a better racer or a worse racer, I feel like coming in late gave me a lot better perspective,” he told VeloNews. “Knowing the athlete that I was as a runner, if I had that same mentality coming into cycling, maybe I would have been able to be better.
“That person I was as a runner was so focused on being the best runner in the world at the detriment of everything else. It didn’t matter what; my relationships, my personal or mental health, everything was oriented to how can I be the best runner in the world. Maybe if I had that attitude, maybe it would take me to the very top of the cycling world, or it could have destroyed me, as it did with running. I don’t have that attitude now, and so maybe I lose a couple more races a year because I don’t have that same mentality, or maybe I’m just actually happier.”
Finding a balance between happiness and wellbeing, and your own drive and ambition can be tough for everyone — not just elite athletes. It’s a concept that Woods has grappled with over the years.
“A great example is Michael Jordan. Jordan was the best basketball player in the world, and you watch how he became the best basketball player in the world,” Woods said. “You watch the documentary [The Last Dance -ed] and read books about him, and he was so driven. He was so focused, and everything was oriented around that, and he didn’t care about his relationships.
“It was all about him becoming the best and he was the best, but there are so many other players that weren’t. Those people have to figure out if it is sustainable to be a person in competition with him with that mentality.
“I do think about that often. If I had a different mentality, maybe that could compete more with these other guys. But that’s also a bit of a cop-out, too.”