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ADELAIDE, Australia (CT) – When the peloton hit the base of the Corkscrew Road climb on stage 3 of the Santos Tour Down Under there were several names every on-looker expected to be in the mix. Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Richie Porte (BMC), Rohan Dennis (BMC) — all proven performers on the punchy hills of the Tour Down Under.
But few around the world would have expected Cannondale Pro Cycling’s Michael Woods to not just match it with the big favourites, but to put them in difficulty.
“When I made it to the front at the start of the climb I knew the power I was putting out in training so I knew if I was at the front I had a good shot at doing well,” Woods said after stage 3. “And the surge of adrenaline knowing I was at the front and Phil Liggett doing commentary saying I was there, hearing the chopper on top and everyone screaming my name …
“I’ve watched that on TV on the trainer back home and just fantasised about that and now it’s actually happened.”
Woods followed attacks by race leader Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff) and Richie Porte on the lower slopes of Corkscrew Road before launching a salvo of his own near the top. It was a calculated move — the Canadian had been in Australia since late December and had ridden the climb several times in reconnaissance. He also had some valuable advice from his team car.
“I talked with my director Fabrizio [Guidi] and he saw how well I was climbing and he said ‘don’t be the first to move; wait till the last steep pitch’ and that’s what I did,” Woods told CyclingTips. “I felt good; I was able to respond to Porte’s surges and so I decided to take the reins on the climb and see what would happen.”
What happened was that Woods dropped Porte, Gerrans, McCarthy, Dennis, Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) along with everybody else in the bike race, except Sky’s Sergio Henao. Woods admits he was “very surprised” to get away from the calibre of riders he did.
“These guys are some of the best climbers in the world,” Woods said. “I’ve watched them so many times on TV make guys look silly so to be able to … put time into them on the climb was crazy.”
Followers of the North American racing scene will be familiar with the story of Woods’ impressive rise to the WorldTour. But for others watching the Tour Down Under, Woods was an almost total unknown before yesterday’s stage.
A former middle-distance runner with Canadian junior records to his name, Woods only turned to cycling in 2011 after stress fractures ended his running career. He rose through the ranks quickly, first racing at Continental level in 2013 with the Canadian Garneau-Quebecor team.
He had a breakthrough season in 2015 with the Optum-Kelly Benefits team, winning a stage and finishing second overall at the Tour of Utah. Those results, among others, earned Woods a pro contact with Cannondale Pro Cycling at 29 years of age.
This week’s Tour Down Under is Woods’ first race in Cannondale colours and his first WorldTour stage race. He lines up as part of a very impressive squad; a squad that includes rising Kiwi star Paddy Bevin, Dutch fastman Wouter Wippert and former Orica-GreenEdge utility Simon Clarke, among others. And yet it is Woods that has shone brightest in the lime green of Cannondale so far this week.
Woods himself puts it down to confidence as much as anything — confidence in himself and confidence from those around him.
“I came in as a big of an unknown but talking to [director sportif] Charly Wegelius at team camp he told me going into this race ‘don’t put any barriers on yourself because we know your talent, we know your ability. So we’re going to put the guys behind you at this race,’ Woods said.
“And the confidence they’ve put in me has paid off — it’s pretty special.”
While Woods and Henao would get caught on the run-in to the finish from the top of Corkscrew Road on stage 3, the Canadian mature-age rookie still managed to sprint to third from a select group. That result puts him fourth overall, just 11 seconds off the overall lead of Simon Gerrans.
“I’m very happy with where I’m at,” Woods said after stage 3. “I came into this race with the goal of a top five. Knowing that Willunga’s going to be difficult and an uphill finish, and the way I’m climbing, I’ve got a good shot at even moving further up.”
For those just learning about Michael Woods for the first time, it might seem strange to consider him as an contender for the podium overall. But after his performance on stage 3, and given stage 5 finishes at the top of Willunga Hill, it would seem strange not to consider him a contender.