By Martin Boyce
Five years after trading in his track spikes, runner-turned-cyclist Mike Woods is peddling himself closer to his goal of racing in the Tour de France.
The 30-year-old Ottawa native competed in the world’s next-biggest cycling stage race, making his Grand Tour debut at the May 5-28 Giro d’Italia
“It was really incredible and the race is super epic,” recounts Woods, who races for the Cannondale-Drapac pro team. “Just all around, it was a really special experience for me.”
The competition comprises 21 races on mostly consecutive days. In Stage 16, for example, Woods and his competitors rode for almost 7 hours, covering 222 km of narrow, winding roads up the massive Stelvio Pass through the Italian Alps, into Switzerland, and back.
It’s a gruelling undertaking (though “your body gets to accustomed to the fatigue,” Woods says) and breathtaking for fans to watch – a little less so for the athletes, the landscape often lost since the race itself provides few chances to appreciate the scenery.
“When everything is under control, you sometimes get an opportunity to look around,” Woods notes. “It’s on those occasions that you’re really blown away.”
The cliff-side roads were daunting at first, but over the course of his career, the climbing specialist adjusted and got accustomed to the thrill.
“You’re so habituated to it, that, typically, it’s like it’s just part of the job – kind of like walking down the sidewalk almost,” highlights the Hillcrest High School grad, before adding that it’s a much scarier task when those roads are wet and he’s descending at high speeds (a rider was recently clocked at 119 km/h during the Tour de Suisse).
Although Woods didn’t achieve his primary goal of winning a stage at the Giro, he produced a pair of 5th-place finishes (out of 160+ competitors) on stages 6 and 8, and played a key role Cannondale teammate Pierre Rolland’s stage 17 win.
“That almost made amends for it,” signals Woods, “but I still wanted to win.”
Still owner of several records from his junior career, Woods’ competitive fires were first stoked on the track.
Derailed by recurrent foot fractures while at the University of Michigan, the former Ottawa Lions Track-and-Field Club athlete turned to cycling at first simply as a means to stay fit and enjoy himself while recovering from injuries.
“I’m so glad I fell into cycling. I wish I got into it earlier,” underlines Woods, who initially found it tough to find pro opportunities as one of the oldest rookies in the sport. “In cycling, there’s a huge value placed on youth and potential. But, if you get wins at big races, teams will always be interested in you.”
The Rio 2016 Olympian’s main goal is now to win at the biggest bike race of all; he wants a stage victory at the Tour de France.
“It’s a career-altering opportunity,” Woods explains. “It’s almost like you’re set as a cyclist, like you’ve really cemented your legitimacy as a great rider.”
Woods hopes to fulfill that dream as soon as 2018. He won’t race this year’s Tour de France, since the June 10-18 Tour de Suisse will bring him to 64 race days this season, the most out of the peloton.
“It’ll be a huge load, assuming I finish the Tour de Suisse,” says Woods, who isn’t currently planning to race at the Global Relay Canadian Road Cycling Championships back home in Ottawa from June 24-28. “I imagine I will be pretty tired at that point and in need of rest.”