Michael Woods is no longer a cycling newbie with untapped potential. His stunning second place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday was more than confirmation for the 31-year-old Canadian.
There are no surprises in a race as hard and as grueling as Liège. The former runner who started racing at the WorldTour level a little more than two years ago demonstrated he has the cycling smarts to match his legs.
“It’s definitely the best result I’ve ever had in my life,” Woods said Sunday. “It’s a win for me.”
Everyone knows it takes more than legs and lungs to win on the WorldTour.
Sunday’s podium reveals just how quickly Woods has learned the ropes during his meteoric progression. He the legs and the savvy to ride at the nose of the action during the key moments of the race. He was well-positioned at La Redoute and Roche-aux-Faucons, and made the right decisions to put himself into contention.
“I proved today I can be in contention in a WorldTour race,” Woods said. “I was at the front and it was cool.”
EF Education First-Drapac sport director Tom Southam told the riders they needed to be aggressive if they wanted to take something out of Liège.
“If they waited and waited and waited, it was going to be too late,” Southam said. “Had he waited and come in with the group, he may have been seventh or fifth or whatever. He really did the right thing by taking his chances.”
After Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) attacked over the top of the Roche-aux-Faucons to a solo victory, Woods wisely followed a heated pursuit by Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale). The pair came in two-three behind the Luxembourger who said he was attacking to try to set up teammate Julian Alaphilippe. Woods powered home for what is Canada’s first podium at the Belgian monument.
“Woods is clearly progressing in his ability to read a race and ride at the front of the peloton,” said team boss Jonathan Vaughters. “Following Bardet’s attack showed newfound tactical savvy.”
It’s been a quick coming of age for Woods, who has been surpassing expectations ever since emerging on the North American scene in 2014 and 2015. An injury caused him to table his promising middle-distance athletics career, and he didn’t start racing competitively on bikes until he was in his mid-20s. His natural motor coupled with strong ambition saw him quickly post results, including a stage win and fourth overall Tour of the Gila while riding for Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies. Another stage win and a second-place result at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah secured him a neo-pro contract with Vaughters’s squad for 2016.
Woods’ first forays at the WorldTour level hinted at his potential. He was fifth at his WorldTour stage-race debut with Slipstream at the 2016 Santos Tour Down Under. His 12th at his first try at Flèche Wallonne a few weeks later electrified the Slipstream organization. Vaughters whispered in Woods’ ear that he could one day win the big races of the Ardennes.
“JV told me I could win an Ardennes classic, and I didn’t believe him when he first told me,” Woods said Sunday. “Now I’m starting to believe.”
That day almost came to fruition much faster than anyone could have expected Sunday in a warm and humid edition of Liège. Woods delivered a performance that Vaughters was sure he could produce. The ride gave Team EF Education First the monument podium it was looking for in the spring classics.
Woods will carry the momentum of Sunday’s podium performance into the Giro d’Italia next month, where he is harboring ambitions of a top-five finish. He completed two grand tours in 2017, capping off his season with a seventh overall at a hard-fought Vuelta a España.
“I started cycling at 25 and I’m probably the oldest neo-pro in history at 29,” Woods said. “I still want to improve. But today is such a good result I want to cherish it.”
Sunday’s ride was a sweet coming-of-age moment for Woods. He is still a relative newbie in cycling years, but Sunday saw how fast he is catching up in racing experience to what his age suggests.