Three hundred meters from the finish line in Innsbruck, Austria, Canadian Mike Woods found himself in a race-winning position. The 31-year-old, fresh off his Vuelta a España stage win, had forced a selection on Höttinger Höll and was coming to the line with Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Tom Dumoulin (The Netherlands) and Romain Bardet (France).
Valverde opened up the four-up sprint that would decide who would wear the rainbow jersey in 2019.
“I had a lot of confidence in my sprint, so my plan was to simply wait until 150 meters to go,” said Woods. “When Valverde opened at 300 meters, I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was going to beat him.”
As Woods dug deep to pour the last bit of power in his legs into the pedals, he cramped.
“I had missed my final bottle,” said Woods. “And I began to cramp super hard in both my calves and my hamstrings. I started pedaling squares and went from thinking ‘I could win this’ to ‘I hope I can carry myself across the line in front of Dumoulin.’ ”
Woods managed to hang on for third place. Valverde took the win. Bardet settled for silver.
“I was disappointed in the immediate aftermath,” said Woods. “I can’t believe that I’m saying that now, but that’s how I truly felt when I crossed the line. At 200 meters to go, I thought I was going to beat Valverde, but once I started to cramp, my chances faded away.
“No matter how good you are, you won’t find yourself in a race-winning position with 300 meters to go that often at a World Championships,” said Woods. “To be that close and have it go out the window because of cramping, in that moment, it was disappointing. Now, after having 24 hours to think about it, I’m over the moon. I didn’t sleep last night. That’s how excited I was.”
Until he cramped with the finish line in sight, Woods had a dream race.
“The race played out pretty much as we had expected,” Woods explained. “I’m really fortunate to be riding for a federation – Cycling Canada – that is open to consultation and to ride for a team – EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale – that is so supportive of me. My federation director Kevin Field and my coach Paulo Saldanha are both aware of my strong relationship with my sport director Juanma Garate. They worked with him to try to understand how the race would play out.
“Through conversations with Juanma, we landed on a strategy that would have me play off France and use Alaphilippe as my reference,” Woods noted. “When we hit the final climb, all I had were three riders in front of me: Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Julian Alaphilippe. At that point, things had gone so to plan that I thought I might be dreaming.”
The last of seven laps of the 23.8 kilometer Inssbruck circuit veered from course to include the 2.9 kilometer Höttinger Höll. The climb included gradients as steep as 25 percent. Woods drew inspiration from a vocal crowd on the steepest slopes to initiate the move from which the podium would emerge.
Initially Gianni Moscon (Italy) made the selection. A second acceleration by Woods saw Moscon fall away. Dumoulin used the descent to claw his way back to the leaders, latching on with two kilometers left to race.
“When Tom caught us, all cohesion went out the window,” said Woods. “At that point, there was such little distance left, and with the work he did alone to bridge across while the rest of us worked together, I knew he’d pretty gassed from the effort.”
Dumoulin put in one last dig, without effect, as Woods bided his time. Valverde opened. Woods launched. And cramped.
“To be a bronze medalist at the world championships is not something that I could have dreamt of when I was working behind a teller stand at a bank a few years ago,” said Woods. “I think I started to show glimpses of these types of performances last year. This year, I’ve really stepped up my consistency and shown that now, as long as I am healthy, I can contend against the best riders in the world.
“This confidence and inner-belief has made racing at the WorldTour a lot less scary and a lot more fun.,” Woods added. “When I first started racing at this level, I spent half of my races in fear of crashing or getting dropped. I’m seeing bike racing far differently, and when it goes well, it is damn fun.”
Woods’ season is not over yet. He’ll line up for GP Emilia next weekend, and Il Lombardia the weekend after next.
“As I get ready for my final few races this year and start shifting my focus to next year, I just hope I can continue to learn from these past results,” said Woods. “I’m aim to use this perspective to continue my progression in this sport and inspire more kids to get on bikes and more fans to cheer for a Canadian kicking it in the WorldTour.”