Mike Woods knew the short, sharp uphill kick into Caltagirone suited him. The Canadian had circled stage four of the Giro d’Italia on the calendar several weeks out from his third Grand Tour. While Woods underplayed his chances to the media before the start, EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale lined up for the first Italian stage of the 101st edition of the Giro full of confidence in Woods to deliver a result.
And deliver he did – although one step short of the target. In the uphill sprint, Woods emerged from a fragmented leading group to claim second, unable to come around Tim Wellens (Lotto Fix All) before the line.
“I felt great throughout the day,” said Woods. “I knew I was going to be on a good one today. It was a really difficult and challenging last climb. Wellens just had the better legs. I was trying to time it. I tried coming around him, but I just couldn’t.”
Woods was positioned to contend for the stage by the selfless work of his teammates. The 202 kilometers from Cantania to Caltagirone covered over 3000 meters of undulating, twisting and narrow roads. Much of the route was exposed, and the peloton faced several sections on the course with an abrupt bottleneck. Despite the challenges, EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale remained steadfastly focused on a single mission.
“The team rode incredible today all day,” said Nate Brown. “We had a plan. We stuck to the plan, which was to get Mike into good position for the final and let him take over.”
The last of the early escape riders had rejoined the peloton 13 kilometers from the finish. Team Sky replaced BMC on the front of the bunch as the counter-attacks signalled the chaos to come. Enrico Zardini (Wilier Triestina) and Valeria Contia (UAE Team Emirates) were the first to jump away. Conti pushed on alone when Zardini was unable to match his effort, and Lotto Fix All assumed responsibility for the chase.
“In the final 10km, I took over for Mike. I had him sit on my wheel. We floated the top 10 positions, said Brown. “That was our goal, to keep him in the top ten going into the last climb.”
The narrowing of the road into the last village caused a crash that split the peloton. Woods, well-positioned by Brown on the run-in the village, avoided the chaos.
“The idea was not to put Mike in the top three or four, because it was a long climb until the end, but we wanted him in the top 10 when the climb begun,” explained sport director Juanma Garate.
The final kilometer featured an average gradient of nearly nine percent with several pitches in the double digits.
“I took Mike to maybe 700 meters to go, and then he kind of lost my wheel a little bit because he got cut off, but he was top 10 going into the last climb,” said Brown. “Mike took it from there.”
“You spend so much time just sitting in your bed, wondering ‘Will I be good enough?’ You spend the whole race, thinking, ‘Am I going to have it for the climb?’ I’m racing enough to have an understanding of where I’m I’m going to be, and I felt great today,” said Woods.
Great enough that when Enrico Battaglin (LottoNL-Jumbo) kicked 300 meters from the line and Wellens jumped on the Italian’s wheel, Woods could handily follow. Battaglin wilted before the finish. Woods remained glued to Wellens wheel, lacking anything extra to come around him.
“It was full gas,” said Woods. “Once Wellens went, it was all just a question of power.”
“Sure, second is great, but I wanted to win,” added Woods. “We came here to win a stage, and two second places doesn’t cut it.”
Tuesday’s race was the first test for Woods, but it’s far from the last. Wednesday’s stage five features similar terrain.
“Tomorrow is another opportunity,” said Garate. “When we come second, it means we are there. We are close. We are fighting. We still have three weeks. We have time enough win one stage or another.”
“Today was the one that stood out for me. It’s where I wanted to do well,” noted Woods. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings. It’s similar to this one, so hopefully I can be good there.”
“I think we really want to win now and it’s given us a lot of confidence,” Brown added. “We can win in almost any scenario in this race – we have a sprinter, breakaway riders, climbers, we have Mike. I’m really motivated and optimistic that we’ll get the win.”