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It’s undeniable that Michael Woods (EF Education First) has made tremendous strides since converting from running to cycling. In little more than a half decade, Woods has gone from a newbie pro to standing on the world championships podium.
As a former collegiate runner who didn’t seriously start racing bikes until his mid-20s, Woods’s upward trajectory on two wheels is something out of Hollywood.
One thing was slowing him down, however, in his transition from world-class runner to world-class cyclist: descending. As a former runner used to going straight, cycling’s fastest and most dangerous skillset was handicapping him.
“I was completely ignorant to how hard it was to race a bike,” Woods said. “I was one of the best runners in the world, so I thought I should be one of the best cyclists in the world. I never knew how technical the sport is and how nuanced it is tactically. I’ve had a huge learning curve. I have a lot of scars to prove that, because I crashed a lot.”
Woods’s deficiencies in the bunch became even more apparent when he made the leap to the WorldTour in 2016. It was one thing racing on the wide-open roads of Canada and the U.S., and quite something else to do so on the narrow pavement of Europe.
Woods surpassed expectations at every turn and quickly learned how to defend his position in the bunch, but he was also learning the hard way how races can be won or lost in descending. He could stay near the best when the road tilted upward, but he didn’t have the descending chops to stay close when gravity took over.
“After seeing Michael in the Vuelta two years ago, we knew it would be necessary to work on the descents,” said EF Education First sport director Juanma Garate. “He’s really improved since then.”
Garate put Woods in touch with Oscar Saíz, one of the Spanish mountain biking’s pioneers. A former World Cup downhiller who raced on the legendary Volvo-Cannondale team before retiring in 2008, Saíz now works as a coach and trainer.
Saíz has worked with plenty of roadies, including Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), whose descending skills have also improved dramatically, as well as 2016 Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen just before she went to Rio de Janeiro. Teams have also tapped him for his knowledge and skills.
Since Woods is based in Andorra, the pair linked up to start working on the project in late 2017. Saíz works with a mix of video and hands-on instruction, developing drills, tips, and techniques on how to corner, brake, and accelerate on Europe’s most treacherous roads.
“Garate put us in touch. I felt like it made a huge difference,” Woods said. “It’s still something I have to refine and work on, because I don’t have those inherent skills like a guy like Peter Sagan, who started racing BMX as a little kid. I did a ton of sports as a kid, so I grew up playing hockey and downhill skiing, skills that involve coordination, cornering. I was working with Saíz on my descending. It’s something I will always have to work at.”
The work paid off. Last season, Woods raced with more confidence on the descents, and his improved skills helped him throughout his breakout season. His stage victory at the Vuelta a España at the summit of the Balcón de Bizkaia couldn’t have come without the descending skills that were necessary to get to the climb.
At the Santos Tour Down Under in January, Woods was in a promising breakaway with three other riders attacking on the descent coming off the Corkscrew climb in the Adelaide. It was Woods yelling out, “no brakes! No brakes!”
Descending is an important, often overlooked skill, something Woods quickly realized when he made the leap to the WorldTour. Some riders are famous for their descending, others are notorious for how bad they are.
“Not only can you lose a lot of time, but you can end your sporting career,” Garate said. “The objective isn’t to win the Tour de France in the downhill. The objective is not to lose it on the descents.”
Garate has worked closely with Woods since he came to the team in 2016. The former pro won stages in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, and said he’s floored at how fast Woods is adapting to the skills required to compete in the WorldTour.
“Woods has a big advantage because he is already an athlete. He is a sportsman — he could do any sport he wanted to,” Garate said. “He is a hard worker and so professional. You put a goal in front of him, and then he works to reach it. He’s very analytical, and he studies his performance.”
Woods has mapped out some big goals for 2019. After hitting podiums at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the worlds, as well as a breakout and emotional stage victory at the Vuelta a España, Woods is setting the bar even higher. He’s hoping to convert those podiums to victories and race the Tour de France for the first time.
Woods already hit an early season goal with a stage win during the Herald Sun Tour as part of a block of racing and training in Australia. Up next is Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy.
“Every year he is getting better. We don’t know where his limit is, and he doesn’t know either,” Garate said. “It’s a continual progression and we keep moving up.”
Woods said improving his descending skillset is part of his evolution to develop into a top-level professional. Ever meticulous, Woods is taking the downhill lessons to heart, and hopes to apply them this spring when he returns to the Ardennes.
“As a runner, your coaches are so risk-averse, and runners are so forward-motion and one-dimensional, you often forget you need to be a well-rounded athlete as a cyclist,” Woods said. “You can never stop improving as an athlete.”