As the final meters ticked by on Wednesday’s Vuelta a España stage, Mike Woods had a voice in his ear, urging him to ride.
“Do it for your family,” the voice shouted.
And Woods did.
Over those closing seconds, he took what was remained of his strength and left it on the road. He celebrated in the fog, raising a singe hand across the line. Too tired, too steep, to truly celebrate.
And then Woods began to cry.
“My wife had a stillbirth two months ago,” Woods said in an heartbreaking post-race interview. “We lost the little guy. His name was Hunter. The whole time I was going up the climb, I was thinking of him. I wanted to win so badly for him, and I did it.”
The voice on the other end of the race radio belonged to EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale sport director Juanma Garate.
“It’s a very special day for me today,” Garate said. “I have been with Mike since he came to the team, and we’ve worked closely together over the last two years to arrive to this point. We’ve built up everything for this moment. Knowing what he and his family have been through this year, I wanted it for him even more. When he won, I cried like a baby in the car. I’m happier for him today than I was for myself when I a stage of the Tour.”
“To win is great,” said EF Pro Cycling CEO Jonathan Vaughters. “To overcome the sadness he and his wife have been through this year is what truly makes me grateful and humble to have someone like Mike amongst us.”
The emotional victory marks a milestone for Woods, who finished second at Liège-Bastgone-Liège this year and also a close second at a stage of the Giro d’Italia. There was a feeling of not “if,” but “when” with Woods.
The Canadian seized his opportunity on the 17th stage of the Vuelta, riding himself into the breakaway with teammate Simon Clarke.
Clarke, already a stage winner at the 2018 Vuelta a España, dedicated himself to Woods’ chances. He was the first to attack on the lower slopes of the final climb. Woods had the last word, launching the final attack 480 excruciatingly steep meters from the finish line. He won atop Balcón de Bizkaia, holding off a fast closing Dylan Teuns (BMC) by five seconds.
Woods has been dubbed “Mr. Fourth Week” for his increasing strength as a grand tour goes on, and stage 17 marked what was likely his final opportunity to make optimal use of his form.
“In one stage in the first week, Woods had back luck with a crash. Maybe we could have won anyway, but Bora chased the break back for Sagan and our chances were finished,” said Garate. “Then he was in the break again. And he crashed again. And also there was another team chasing. Today was his last real chance. We knew it. He knew it.”
While Woods clearly had the legs, the team needed every ounce of tactical acumen it could muster to deal with a large break and dwindling chances to win a stage for every team.
Enter Simon Clarke.
“Once we made the break together, with the guys that were in there, it was clear that it would be best for me to work for Woods,” said Clarke. “There was some huge climbing talent in that move, and Woods is clearly the strongest climber. When we saw the composition of the group, I fully dedicated myself to Woodsy’s chances.”
Clarke was an ever-present figure near the front of the escape, particularly as the peloton began to chase in earnest. The Australian marked the first of the attacks from the leading group. And the second. And the third. His efforts saw the breakaway reach the base of Balcón de Bizkaia intact with a 3’47 head-start on the bunch.
“Everything I did today was about setting up Woodsy,” said Clarke. “I wanted to leave him in a winning position before I inevitably lost contact on the final climb.”
“Simon did 50 percent, 60 percent of Mike’s victory today,” said Garate. “You watched on TV and you saw that the break arrived at the bottom of the last climb together. That was only possible because of Simon, and it was exactly what we needed to keep Mike out of trouble and as fresh as possible. If the attacks had started earlier, it would have been more of a lottery to win the stage. Keeping the break together gave Mike the best chance.”
Clarke’s work wasn’t done when the breakaway began the final climb. With seven kilometers left to race, Clarke went on the offensive, launching an attack. When Clarke’s move was neutralized, Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) countered.
“It was a very difficult climb,” noted Woods. “De Marchi was pacing it pretty evenly at first. I was able to breathe well and relax. When the first attacks went, I felt like one of the strongest guys and thought I responded well. I managed to answer some of those early attacks, but then Juanma came on the radio and told me to stay relaxed. To wait, wait, wait.”
The early attacks softened the legs in the breakaway. The upper slopes proved most decisive. De la Cruz set a tempo that saw all but Woods, Majka and Teuns fall away in the final three kilometers. Woods marked an attack by Teuns and another by De la Cruz before launching his own.
“The climb is only as hard as your form is bad, and this year I felt good,” added Woods. “I love this area. Basque Country is special to me. I felt so good, and in those last few hundred meters, I could hear all the fans screaming my name.
“I had Juanma in my ear telling me to do it for my family, and I just channeled all my energy into thinking how tough this year has been,” said Woods. “I used my little guy Hunter as inspiration.”