Lying in a ditch alongside some innocuous French road with a broken leg might seem an unlikely place for an epiphany.
But that’s what happened to Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) as he looked down in horror to see his mangled right leg on March 12 in stage 5 at Paris-Nice.
Just as a global pandemic was sweeping down on Europe, the consequences of his crash blitzed through his mind as fast as the searing pain pulsating out of his femur. And as he rattled off the list of the enormity of what he stood to lose — the Tour de France, the Olympics and world championships — he just as quickly realized how lucky he was.
“I never wanted to break my femur, and I never wanted a global pandemic,” Woods said. “But both things have taught me some great life lessons to realize how lucky I am.”
Even before his mid-stage crash in March left him with a broken femur, Woods already had plenty to be thankful for. At 33, he’s deep into the second act of his endurance athletic career, with his time as a bike racer already taking him to unimaginable heights. Over the winter, he and his wife, Elly, celebrated the birth of their first child. And in 2019, Woods confirmed himself among the elite of the WorldTour with a Tour de France debut and a milestone victory at Milano-Torino. So the 2020 season was supposed to be the icing on the cake.
And in the weeks since Woods writhed in pain in a ditch in March, he’s taken stock of how far he’s come, and how much further he can go. Not that he ever took it for granted, but a close call, all in the context of an unfolding world pandemic and the newfound responsibilities of being a father, brought everything home.
“It put a lot of other things in perspective,” Woods told VeloNews. “Just how dangerous this crash was, and how many risks I do take on the bike. I’m lucky to have a great family, and it’s been a blessing to be at home for such a long period of time, and to have my health back.”
Into cycling’s Twilight Zone
When VeloNews caught up with Woods at the end of last week, it was as if he was coming out of some weird time warp.
His broken leg and subsequent recovery was book-ended by the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. When he crashed on March 12, COVID-19 was starting to take grip of Europe. As Woods sped toward a French hospital in an ambulance, officials across Europe were poised to shut down borders, close schools and businesses, and send a continent into quarantine unlike anything seen in modern history.
And oddly enough, some eight weeks later in mid-May, when team doctors gave him the OK to return to train outdoors, it was the very same day that Spanish authorities took the first steps to ease lockdown conditions, and allowed pro cyclists train on open roads following two months of lockdown.
If Woods was going to choose when to break his leg, he couldn’t have chosen a better time.
“In many ways, it was great timing, and weird timing,” he said in a telephone interview. “The world was forced to do what I was forced to do — hunker down for six weeks.
“Of course, I wouldn’t want a pandemic to happen, but if it is going to happen, it’s better it’s happening now,” he said. “I didn’t miss a thing.”
So instead of being sidelined for his season highlights, it’s very likely that all of his major goals are still attainable. With the revised WorldTour calendar pushing everything back into the fall, and the Tokyo Olympics on hold, coupled with Woods’ ever-improving recovery, his targets are within reach.
As he comes out of the other end of lockdown and recovery, Woods estimates he’s about where he would be in terms of fitness as he would be after winter. Woods is confident he will be race-ready when the WorldTour calendar kicks back into gear later this summer.
“I realized I was missing nothing, and how fortunate that I broke my leg when I did,” he said. “And when the Olympics were postponed, every day I was getting better. When I got the all-clear from the doctor to train again, the timing was insanely positive.
“I’ve got a great shot of starting up when the calendar resumes,” he continued. “I am at the same fitness when I normally start in the off-season. This is kind of like late-October, early November, and there’s plenty of runway to be prepared for me to be racing in August.”
Taking his time
As far as broken legs go, Woods got “lucky” with this one. He described it as a “spiral” fracture in the middle of his femur bone. None of his joints, ligaments or tendons was affected. So in terms of a cycling career, this injury isn’t going to jeopardize his ever-improving prospects.
“In many ways I am pretty lucky, because if my leg was not the first point of contact, it could have been a lot worse,” he said. “It’s a bad fracture, but in a good place. It didn’t impact any of the joints, because if it were a bit higher or lower, it would have been real bad. That increased the rate of recovery.”
This isn’t the first time Woods was facing a career-altering injury. As part of his origin story as a top endurance athlete, Woods came into cycling after a series of stress fractures, over-training and rushed returns to competition ultimately derailed his running career. It was only after taking up cycling as part of his recovery that Woods finally gave up on running, and fully embraced road cycling in 2012.
In fact, last summer, when he arrived in Paris at 32ndoverall, he became what many believe is the first person to ever post a sub-four-minute-mile and complete the Tour de France. Had he not rushed his comeback and fully recovered from his running injuries more than a decade ago, he might not have ever made it to the Champs-Élysées.
“I made a lot of those mistakes from being a cocky 19-, 20-year-old who thought he knew everything,” he said of his running injuries. “When I younger, I only identified myself as a runner. I had this fear as a runner, if I wasn’t training or running, you lose everything. I was always rushing everything.
“The support I’ve had now is so much better than when I was injured as a runner,” he said. “Things have changed so much from 2004-05-06. And I was defined only as a runner, so it was a recipe for a career-ending injury. If I had the support team I have now, there is no way I would be a cyclist today.”
Pain unlike any other
So what happened on that road in France in March?
In what Woods described as “pilot error,” he crashed while trying to pass on the outside of a descending corner that suddenly closed quicker than expected. While the leading riders in the pack had time to adjust and brake, Woods and his faster trajectory forced him to make a split-second decision.
“I was going about 60kph. It was my fault, and as I was passing on the outside, the corner was a diminishing radius corner,” Woods said. “So I could go into a rider in front of me or take it into a grass. I chose to go into grass. I thought it was a good choice, but it was so slippery, and it just dropped down into a big culvert and I over-ended. I felt this awful crunch.”
Anyone who’s crashed on a bike knows that adrenaline kicks in, and if there’s nothing too serious, most racers get back on the bike and deal with the pain later. And then there are the crashes when it’s instantly obvious something is very wrong.
“I knew immediately it was broken, from the sensations and the sound,” he said. “It immediately hurt, and that is a bad, bad sign. Usually when you crash, there is so much adrenaline you don’t feel any pain right away. It was the most pain I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
“When I lifted my leg, I felt the top portion of the leg come up, but not the bottom,” he said. “The pain was not just physical, but also mental. The pain of knowing all of a sudden the rest of season could be compromised — the Olympics, the Tour and the worlds – and the feeling of that sensation that the bone was slipping as I lifted my leg, that made me think all those goals were done. That was super-depressing.”
COVID curtain coming down
It’s not only how the crash happened, but also where and when that made things even more complicated.
Paris-Nice this year was unlike any race of the season. Back in March, coronavirus was ripping through the European racing calendar. Races were being canceled and teams were pulling out of events. Race organizers tried to thread the needle with Paris-Nice, but things were literally changing by the hour.
On the morning of stage 5, Woods and his EF Pro Cycling teammates woke up to news that the United States was about to shut its borders. Tejay van Garderen decided to not start the race that morning, and B-lined it back home. On the same day as Woods’ accident, Lawson Craddock pulled out of the race with a headache that some at the time worried might have been COVID-19, and he was taken away by ambulance.
Paris-Nice would eventually see the final stage canceled, and a handful of teams opted to pull out. That tension and uncertainty was building as Woods swept into that fateful corner along the edge of France’s Massif Central.
“I just wasn’t 100 percent invested in the race at that point,” he said. “I signed up to do the race. JV [manager Jonathan Vaughters] and the entire team gave me the option not to do it. I had not yet raced in 2020, because of the birth of my baby, so the team gave me more time.”
Woods was supposed to race Tirreno-Adriatico, but the mid-March Italian WorldTour race was among the first wave of events that were canceled this spring.
“I was in great form and wanted to race, but [sport director Andreas] Klier said, ‘I want everyone invested in the race,’” Woods said. “By stage 5, things had changed. Other guys were wondering whether we’d thought we’d finish. My mind was at 98 percent, and that two percent lack of focus resulted in that crash.”
Escape from France
Like any WorldTour pro, Woods has suffered his fair share of crashes and spills. None, however, needed surgery until now.
In a twist of good luck, he was transported to Lyon, a bustling city relatively close to the French Alps that happens to be one of France’s best orthopedic hospitals. When he arrived, the hospital was preparing for the first wave of COVID-19 patients. France was about to go into lockdown, and hospital staffers were already donning protective gear, masks and face coverings.
“I felt silly being there for breaking my leg,” he said. “There was an eerie silence for what was about to come.”
Luckily for Woods, one of the region’s top surgeons was on duty. By the time he arrived in late afternoon, he was under the knife, and doctors screwed in a titanium rod to stabilize his leg, and he was off the operating table by 9 p.m. Still loopy from the anesthesia, he learned his parents, who were visiting his wife and baby in Spain, were coming over to pick him up.
“Things escalated so fast,” Woods said. “There were questions that Spain might shut its borders, so it became this escape attempt from the hospital. They wanted me longer in the hospital, but I needed to get out of France and into Spain. We made a mad dash for the Spanish border.”
After that whirlwind adventure, Woods settled into Girona, Spain. Though he is a resident of nearby Andorra, he recovered in Girona to be closer to some of the team staffers and other world-class physiotherapists based in the bustling city in northeast Spain that’s home to more than 100 pro cyclists.
This time, he was going to get his recovery right, and not rush things like he did when he was a runner more than a decade before.
“Now I realize that talent doesn’t go away,” Woods said. “Now I am more mature and I have that perspective. With this injury, I might lose my form, but as long as I ensure that I heal properly, I will get that form back. That just makes recovery so much easier when you’re in a positive head space.”
In a weird twist of fate, his recovery paralleled Europe’s shutdown. Spain issued a state of alarm on March 15, and no one was allowed outside of their homes. As he slowly improved and began rehabilitation therapy, coronavirus conditions also eased. Just as the curve started to flatten, Woods began to regain more movement in his leg. After three weeks of physiotherapy treatments, he was able to get back on the indoor trainer. Eight weeks after undergoing the surgery, he was given the all-clear to ride on the road again. It was the very same day that Spanish authorities lifted restrictions allowing professional riders, who had also been locked down in Spain and Andorra to train outdoors.
“We worked on bending my knee, it was just awful,” he said. “Three weeks after the surgery, I was on the trainer. It made a world of difference, gaining some movement, and I started to feel like an athlete again.”
Now nearly 12 weeks after his crash and surgery, Woods says he’s at a near full recovery. Without any unexpected setbacks, he expects to be racing again, perhaps as soon as August when the revised WorldTour calendar resumes.
“I am more than fortunate that I broke my leg when I did,” he said. “If this had not happened, I would have been watching bike races and missing out and being pissed off.”
Ever grateful of the support he’s seen from family, friends, sponsors, teammates and EF staffers, Woods cherished time at home with his newborn daughter, Max. The little packet of joy arrived in January, and after Woods and his wife, Elly, endured a painful personal tragedy in 2017, which he shared with the world in a tearful tribute when he won a stage at that year’s Vuelta a España, spending time with his daughter was the most healing thing that could have happened.
“I’ve been watching my baby grow up day by day, when normally I would have been on the road, seeing things I could not have had I been racing,” he said. “I literally just had to sit there with her, watch her grow up in real-time over two months. That was just beautiful.”
And those life lessons when he was lying in that ditch? For Woods, the setbacks are part of the journey of being a professional athlete as well as an essential element of his personal quest of life and learning.
“I need to be more risk-averse, and also realize when I am on good form, seize the opportunities, because you never know when something like this might happen,” he said. “These past few months have put a lot of things in perspective.”