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Fresh off a seventh-place overall finish at the Vuelta a España, Mike Woods is starting the 2018 season as a bona fide grand tour rider. The 31-year-old Canadian is set to target May’s Giro d’Italia, which should be quite the challenge for someone who only started racing at an elite level a few years ago.
Woods says his offseason, however, could hardly have gone better. Armed with a two-year contract with EF Education First-Drapac and some semblance of security for the first time in his cycling career, Woods was actually able to recover from the season before beginning his training campaign.
“Every offseason prior to this, I’ve lived and died by the sword. I’ve been on one-year contracts,” he told VeloNews this week in a phone interview. “I always had a very short-lived offseason, and I often had sleepless nights during the offseason thinking about how hard I had to train, how much I had to accomplish in order to move up or get to a place where I wanted to be. Whereas this offseason was super enjoyable because I got to hang out.”
Transitioning to cycling after years as a competitive runner, Woods made a name for himself at the WorldTour level as a punchy climber. He finished ninth at last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, further confirming his potential on short, steep ascents, but has been working hard to broaden his skill set. After landing his first career grand tour top-10 result last year in Spain, Woods is directing his efforts toward improving against the clock.
“A huge focus of mine over the last two months has been in time trials, and my seated power,” he said. “Prior to this offseason, I never really worked on those two disciplines because my coach and I had such a small window where, first of all, because of my age, I needed to move up really fast. And then also, even when I got onto [Slipstream], I needed to prove myself and the best way for me to prove myself was through my climbing abilities.”
Now, with time and good reasons to focus on his chrono abilities, Woods says he is already making big strides. No matter how good his preparation, however, Woods is realistic about the challenge of repeating the kind of success he had at last year’s Vuelta.
“I think at the Vuelta, I smashed it and I had a great race, but all the stars aligned. And I had no pressure,” he said. “It was amazing, the way I was handled by Juan Manuel Gárate, my director at the race. We never even talked about GC until stage 9 of the race. So I didn’t have to carry the baggage of racing a GC.”
Woods would like to improve upon the seventh overall he scored at his last grand tour start, but he isn’t interested in committing to a specific result as his objective.
“I’m going to have a lot of races prior to the Giro and because of those races, there’s all these intangibles. I could have a crash, could have an injury, could get sick,” he said. “There’s so many things that could contribute to me not achieving a certain position. All this being said, I want to do better, obviously. I’m motivated and really focused on trying to improve my standing in the Vuelta. But at this point, it’s just so far out to say, ‘I want a top five.'”
Looking ahead to the Giro’s route, Woods is particularly excited about the chance to race up Monte Zoncolan, one of professional cycling’s most brutal climbs. For Woods, the more brutal, the better.
“I found over the course of the Vuelta I progressed and I had my best performances on the hardest days,” he said. “The hardest days of racing that we do on the calendar are often the days where I’m most excited to race now.”
At 31, Woods is nearing a place in his career where most riders might find themselves hitting a plateau physically — but he says with excitement he’s only found himself getting better and better so far.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “If you talk to my coach, Paulo [Saldanha], I’m improving dramatically in all fronts. I’m improving even in things I’ve been working on a lot, like climbing, but where I’m making huge inroads is on the time trial. Before I came to [Slipstream], I probably did a total of, I don’t know, nine time trials in my entire career. So I’m physiologically improving because I’m testing my body in a completely different position, and where I’m really also improving is just my mental capacity and my level of knowledge within the races.”
His road to the Giro will likely start at the Abu Dhabi Tour, and then Woods will race both the Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al País Vasco. From there, it’s on to the Ardennes and his final preparations for the Giro d’Italia.
Along the way, he’s making sure to learn as much about himself as possible. He has enjoyed his expedited journey from running star to cycling star so far, and is committed to finding out more over the next few seasons about where he most excels as a bike racer.
“I still think it’s really too early for me to say I’m just one thing. When I first came into the WorldTour, I was kind of pegged as this short punchy guy,” he said. “But the only reason I was pegged as a short punchy guy is that at Liège, for example, or even Flèche, they’re difficult from a positioning perspective but if you just have a really good capacity and you get a bit lucky, you’re going to have success.
“Some of these other disciplines, time trialing for example, or a GC role, they’re far more nuanced and there’s a big learning curve. I was just not able to express my abilities in those realms because I didn’t have the experience. Over the next year or two, my big goal is not necessarily to say what I’m going to be, but to discover what I’m going to be.”