ADELAIDE, Australia — By now you’ve heard the story. Top-level runner turned into one of the world’s best climbers… on a bike. Mike Woods has always had a shed full of sharp physical tools. But there’s another journey in play here with Woods, too: That of finding his way, and his voice, as a team leader.
“Two years ago the team wanted me to win this race,” he says of the Tour Down Under.
“They had everyone work for me and I completely screwed it up, I did terribly, I crumbled under the pressure. I didn’t have faith in my teammates, and didn’t lean on them when they needed to be leaned on,” Woods explains, whilst grimacing through the pain of his post-race massage after stage two of the Santos Tour Down Under.
Racing over here means spending three to four hours a day in the Aussie summer heat. That blast of hot air when one opens a car door in August… but all day. Thankfully Woods is feeling acclimatized, having arrived three weeks prior to the race. He and Adelaide’s sauna are feeling well acquainted.
The question, though, is if Woods is feeling acclimatized to being a team leader.
Having ridden himself into an unexpected fifth place in his Tour Down Under debut in 2016 meant when Woods only managed to place 21st in 2017 he viewed it as a complete failure.
I hyped myself up around people, so the minute something started going wrong, it became this negative mental spiral downwards.
“I hyped myself up around people, so the minute something started going wrong, it became this negative mental spiral downwards. I set the expectations so high and not just on myself, amongst others too, it was crushing when I didn’t achieve what I wanted,” Woods says.
It was clear that pressure had got the better of him, and in the moments when the mind remaining calm matters, it had failed him. Later that year during the Vuelta a España on stage eight, the team was plunged into uncertainty with the announcement of losing its title sponsor. If the team would survive at all was anyone’s guess. Woods reflects back on the conversation he had with the race Director Sportive, Juan Manuel Garate, before the start of stage nine.
“I just don’t think there’ll ever be a time I’ll feel more pressure than on stage nine before the start. We’d all found out the night previous on stage eight that the team was going to fold, so at the race meeting Juanma said, ‘Ok, we’ve got two options, one, you can race for yourselves and try and get an individual result to help your career out, and I’m not going to judge for that because a lot of you have wives and kids, you need a result in order to get your next contract. The other option is for everyone to ride for Mike, and we do this as a team effort and try and get the win today through Mike.’ ”
The team chose the latter, and within a few seconds the consensus between his teammates meant the burden of trying to generate a win as a way of boosting the team lay heavy around Woods’ neck.
“Getting off that team bus I was like, ‘this a lot of pressure!’ Juanma pulled me aside and he looked me in the eyes and said: ‘You have to get the result today, you have to do this for yourself, for your future family, for your team, for everybody here’, and I was like, ‘Oh shit!’
“We started the race and the team flogged themselves to control everything. All eight guys were sitting in front of me for 160km, with some of the biggest names in the WorldTour sitting behind me. I didn’t win, but I came third to [Chris] Froome and Esteban Chaves.”
Pressure can create and break success, and quite often there isn’t a set formula.
Tom Southam, who is director sportive here at the Tour Down Under, has worked with Woods right from the start and has seen him develop over the last few years, “He’s starting to manage his expectations better. When I first started with Mike I’d ask him how he was and he’d just say, “I’m awesome, I’m great” everyday. He’s learnt how hard it is to win at this level and he’s getting more in touch with where he is mentally and physically.”
After that ride in La Vuelta in 2017, Woods knew that when the pressure piled on he has the ability to cope and even to excel. Coming into the Tour Down Under in 2019 he’s at ease, even as his peers tout him as the man to beat on key stages during the week.
But leadership isn’t all about keeping your cool until the exact moment you’re required to perform. Earlier in the week at the Down Under Classic, in the final throes of the race as the pace was cranked higher with every lap, that was the moment as leader his team wanted him safe and out the way. Woods had other ideas.
“After the race we talked and I disagreed with the guys in the team, they thought that I should take a step back, just so I wouldn’t crash. It was about not taking risks, and ultimately compromise the big goal,” he says. “But I went into that race with the specific intention of activating myself to feel good for the Tour Down Under. I just wanted to make sure I was mentally prepared.
‘That’s another thing I’ve also learned as a leader. Not only do you have to deal with the pressure, you have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders and sometimes you have to be an adult and trust your own instincts.”
Not only do you have to deal with the pressure, you have a lot of responsibility on your shoulders and sometimes you have to be an adult and trust your own instincts.
Those instincts have to be developed and learned until they become second nature. It takes time. Woods now seems relaxed. He’s accepted that the wrong kind of pressure leads to his downfall. We’ll look forward to seeing how those instincts play out during the 2019 season.