Mike Woods has a big July ahead of him
After landing fifth overall at the Tour de Suisse, Mike Woods headed to Andorra for a bit of high-mountain prep before the upcoming Tour de France. Initially, Woods was looking to the Tour as a chance to help out former yellow jersey wearer Chris Froome with his bid for another overall victory, and hoping for some stage wins in the meantime. But a little over a week before the Tour was set to begin, Israel Start-Up Nation (ISN) announced that the tables had turned. Woods would be moving into the role of general classification leader.
ISN picked up both Froome and Woods during the 2020 transfer period, with the hope that they would significantly alter the way the team factors in Grand Tours. Back when Froome signed his contract, Sylvan Adams said, “Chris is the best rider of his generation and will lead our Tour de France and Grand Tour squad.”
Woods’s move to ISN from EF Education-Nippo proved to be a successful one from the word go. He won his first race in ISN colors at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var on February 20. From there, the Canadian raced the Volta a Catalunya and started the Itzulia Basque Country, but was taken out in a crash on stage 3 and was unable to start the next day.
Luckily, Woods sustained no significant injuries, and in the wake of the Spanish races, he turned his attention to the Ardennes one-day events.
His fourth- and fifth-place finishes at La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège were perhaps not what Woods was hoping for, but whatever disappointment he may have felt can surely be forgotten with his next string of results. On May 1, Woods won stage 4 of the Tour de Romandie, and he went on to finish fifth overall. Next came the Tour de Suisse, the final build-up to the Tour de France, where Woods finished fifth overall, third on stage 5, and second on the final stage.
Those back-to-back GC placings for Woods, coupled with a lacklustre overall performance by Froome, encouraged ISN to shift their plans for the Tour de France. Instead of sending Froome into the lion’s den as the leader, they made Woods the featured GC rider, with Froome to guide his way as captain on the road.
It may not have been the plan, but when you’re offered an opportunity to ride for the general classification at the Tour de France, you don’t turn it down.
“With Chris signing on last year, I was brought on to be a guy that would help him in the mountains and also conceivably go for stages depending on where he was and how I was going,” Woods told CyclingTips. “When you have those kinds of legs and that type of chance, I think you’ve got to seize it. So as the season evolved, we started thinking maybe this is something we should go after. My first goal is still going to be stage wins, but yeah, it’s always fun going into a Grand Tour with aspirations.”
It’s not Woods’ first time hunting overall success at a Grand Tour.
“I’ve raced two Grand Tours from a GC perspective but under different circumstances,” Woods said. “When I came seventh at the Vuelta [a España] I wasn’t really coming in with the expectations of running in the GC so there was no real pressure and it kind of evolved.”
That was the 2017 Vuelta. In his second attempt at the general classification of a Grand Tour, at the Giro d’Italia in 2018, things didn’t go exactly as planned. “I did have aspirations of landing on the podium and trying to do well there, but just had a lot of illness and fell apart,” said Woods.
A key feature in Woods’s Tour de France bid in 2021 will be having Froome to guide him. “I don’t have a wealth of experience in racing general classification at a Grand Tour,” said Woods. “Chris does and every time I’ve raced with him this year he has been a real resource from the knowledge perspective and from the tactics perspective and also from just the level of respect.”
Froome has been there. He has dealt with surprise success, pressure, mountains, time trials, and mechanicals at inopportune moments. He has done it all. And he’s won Grand Tours despite major setbacks – although if Woods has to run up a climb in his cleats, he’s probably even better equipped to do so than Froome.
“Guys respect him,” Woods said of Froome. “And that goes a long way when you’re looking for a position in the peloton. And he’s really brought a lot of guidance and support to me already. And so I know that’s going to be the case with this Tour.”
Israel Start-Up Nation and Woods firmly believe that Froome will be back to Grand Tour GC form in the future. The injuries Froome sustained in the crash during recon at the Critérium du Dauphiné were not the kind someone comes back from within a season.
“I think where Froome is coming from, it’s phenomenal how far he’s come since his injury, knowing what happened to him,” Woods said. “But he’s not at the level yet to be leading a WorldTour team to [the] Tour de France. I believe that he’s still going to be able to get back to where he was and I think the Tour is going to be a nice preparation for him, for the Vuelta, and for even 2022.”
Woods’s prior experience with Grand Tour GC hunts hasn’t knocked his confidence going into this Tour. If anything, he feels more prepared. The form he’s had leading into July is a big reason for the easy-going vibes he gives off when chatting on the phone.
“The past two stage races have really given me that confidence that I think I need,” he said.
But his form isn’t the only reason Woods is relaxed. Unlike the young guns he’s going up against in France, Woods has other priorities than just racing his bike: his wife and daughter.
“At the end of the day, I think the best way to manage [the pressure] is to remind myself where I’ve come from,” Woods said. “I never thought in a million years, even when I started cycling, that Chris Froome would be helping me, that he would be getting me bottles at a bike race. I never thought that I would be even racing a bike at one point and cycling.
“Although it’s super important to me, it isn’t the be all and [end] all. I have a great little daughter and a great wife and they’ll love me regardless of how I do this next month.”
To make matters even more interesting, the Tour de France isn’t Woods’s only target this July. Before ISN handed him the GC reigns at the Tour Woods was targeting the Olympic road race in Tokyo on July 25. Woods loves a good one-day event, and the course in Tokyo suits his style. Like the Ardennes and the World Championships in Innsbruck in 2018 where Woods finished third behind Alejandro Valverde and Romain Bardet, the undulating terrain in Japan is something the Canadian was looking forward to.
His change of roles at the Tour hasn’t affected Woods’s original 2021 goal.
“I always get better when I do a Grand Tour,” said Woods. “I’m always better after a Grand Tour. So I know that the load that I’m going to get from this race is going to push me to a higher level. That’s going to, ideally, put me in a great place for the Olympic Games. But, yeah, there’s a bit more stress. There’s a bit more pressure when you run a GC.
“I have to manage that, I have to be aware of that. My big goal this season is the Olympics.”
According to Woods, the opportunity to lead a team at a Grand Tour doesn’t come around every year, and to lead a team at the Tour de France is even rarer.
“The reason why I’m also going after GC is because I don’t know when I’m going to get this opportunity again,” he said. “You don’t get many opportunities to lead a WorldTour team [at] the Tour de France, and sometimes you’ve just got to seize what’s in front of you.”