A WorldTour debutant at 29, Mike Woods is a late starter but a fast learner. Now 32, he’s clinched Monument and World Championship podiums, and starts this Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège as a leading contender.

25 April 2019

It’s the Thursday before the Ardennes Classics week and Mike Woods, speaking to us from a departures lounge in Barcelona airport, is about to board a flight that could take his surprisingly short cycling career to even greater heights.

Characterised by steep climbs – or côtes – rather than cobblestones, the Ardennes Classics rank amongst the most prestigious races on the calendar and are well suited to Mike’s capabilities. Perhaps it helps that some of the hills are so steep that it often seems quicker to run up them…

Growing up in Ottawa, cycling was a means of getting around for Woods, but it was through running that he was going to make his living. A meteoric rise through the junior ranks was rewarded with a full scholarship at the University of Michigan and a runaway success story seemed sure to follow. But life is never that simple.

Michael Woods EF Education First
Michael Woods EF Education First

“I was pegged as the guy who was going to be the next big thing in Canadian running, but my career was blighted by injury,” he says with a brief sigh. “In the end, it all fell apart and I began working in a running store.”

Having a member of staff who had once run a sub 4-minute mile certainly added legitimacy to the store’s sales team, but for Mike it was never going to work long term. “I was like Uncle Rico’s character in Napoleon Dynamite,” he jokes, “living in the past and talking about how far I could throw a football.”

Late in 2011, Mike broke his foot while competing in a 10k race and took the decision to stop running altogether. Realising the void that a lack of competition would leave in Mike’s life, his wife Ellie – also a talented runner – suggested the switch to cycling.

Woods had been attempting to pedal away from persistent running injuries for a couple of years but now turned his focus squarely onto cycling. He called his local bike shop, asked if he could ride for their racing team and the rest has snowballed from there.

Back to the 2019 Spring Classics season and Mike has accumulated an impressive palmarès. A breakout second place in Liège last year was followed by a Vuelta stage win and a bronze medal at the 2018 World Championships – forged on a final climb similar to those found in the Ardennes.

The removal of the Côte de Saint-Nicholas from the finale of this year’s race route might have made victory for a climber less probable, but Mike’s hopes are still high. A repeat visit to the podium this Sunday would cap off an incredible Spring campaign for him and his teammates.

“There’s a buzz around the team, for sure,” Mike affirms. “I’ve been here for four years and we’ve never really won races at this time before but now with Dani Martínez in Paris-Nice, Alberto Bettiol winning a Monument, it’s hard not to get excited.”

Fresh from victory in Flanders and a sixth place in last week’s Brabantse Pijl, Alberto Bettiol will be another arrow in the team’s quiver on Sunday. As well as lending considerable firepower to the EF Education First line up, the Italian has taken the pressure off the shoulders of his teammates. .

Michael Woods EF Education First Dwars door Vlaanderen

“I was like Uncle Rico’s character in Napoleon Dynamite... living in the past and talking about how far I could throw a football.”

Mike explains the effect a big win can have: “When you don’t win for months on end, the pressure mounts and you begin to really feel it as an individual,” he says from experience.

“When you have a few guys notching up wins, that pressure is removed,” he sighs for a second time, more contented this time. “That was reflected in my win earlier this season at the Sun Tour. The day before, Dan McLay won the sprint and I immediately felt less pressure. I went on to win the very next day.”

On a personal level too, Woods is in a good place. While his teammates flew the flag in Flanders, Mike was recovering from an impressive outing at la Volta a Catalunya where he finished sixth overall.

Last Sunday at Amstel Gold, he turned domestique de luxe for teammate Simon Clarke, pulling hard to bring him back into contention for the podium places. The Australian eventually took second behind Mathieu van der Poel, continuing the team’s stellar run of form.

Michael Woods EF Education First Omloop
Michael Woods EF Education First Omloop

For a rider with such impressive results over the last two years, Mike is still growing into his role as a leader. “I just don’t have the experience of some other guys,” he says, “It’s tough for me to tell a guy who’s been racing for longer than me what to do.”

“I’m not the road captain like Mitch Docker,” he pauses. “I’d love to be that guy and had I started racing at the same age as Mitch, I think I could have been. But we didn’t and I’m not,” he continues, matter-of-fact and confident in both his capabilities and his role on the team.

“I’m the team leader in the sense that I’m the guy we’re trying to get across the line first,” he states, “and I’m getting more and more used to that responsibility.”

In terms of his leadership style, Woods is clear. Low stress equals high performance: “The guys work best for me when I’m relaxed and the ambience is good,” he says, with a chuckle that suggests this is not something the team struggles with.

“There have been so many times on the team bus or around the dinner table where I’ve been in fits of laughter,” he says. “We also don’t always talk about cycling because the guys on this team are dynamic, engaging people.”

After a midweek shake down at la Flèche Wallonne, all attention now turns to the oldest Classic of them all, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With Van der Poel and last year’s winner Bob Jungels not on the startline this time around, Woods will be at the centre of those attentions.

He might be in the spotlight but Mike doesn’t suffer from stage fright. A product of a Canada’s bilingual education system, he feels instantly at home in the French-speaking region of Wallonia: “It’s nice to engage with fans who speak a language I’m familiar with, for sure,” he says.

On the topic of his tactics, the Canadian is tight lipped: “For me, it’s a matter of staying in good position,” he says. “If you start a climb in 30th, you are just holding on. If you start in the first five wheels there are more options available to you.”

Michael Woods EF Education First Omloop

“I’m not the road captain like Mitch Docker...I’d love to be that guy and had I started racing at the same age as Mitch, I think I could have been. But we didn’t and I’m not,”

If that answer seems a little vague, it’s meant to be. Ideally, the specifics of Mike’s strategy will be revealed to us, and his rivals, in the latter stages of Sunday’s race. “I can’t reveal my secrets now,” he laughs before pausing to listen to a service announcement. “Anyway if I told you anything now, I’d probably have to kill you.”

And with that, he signs off. More secret agent than Uncle Rico, he has a flight to catch and a race to win. Given his credentials as a runner, he’s sure to catch his flight and, with a growing sense of self-belief on the bike, there’s a good chance he’ll fight for the win on Sunday too.

Woods Wears…

A firm proponent of the bucket hat at the season opener Down Under, Mike has switched to more traditional headwear for the Spring Classics. Support the team with an EF Education First Cap of your own.

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