By Dan Plouffe
He’s won numerous “king of the mountain” crowns in his reinvented cycling career, and that’s a title Mike Woods lived to the fullest in 2014, climbing to a new peak after being stuck in the dumps.
From a serious crash in Italy, to a breakup with his pro team where a teammate was busted for doping, and earning a place on the Canadian team for the UCI Road World Championships thanks to a string of strong performances on home soil, the 2014 season has been a wild ride on two wheels for the former standout runner.
Monumental ups and downs are a theme in Woods’ career. The 27-year-old Ottawa native still holds a number of junior records from his running days, but he was forced out of his first high-performance sport pursuit after repeatedly breaking his foot.
Woods started building a new path in cycling three years ago and was on his way up the ranks until last September, when he crashed in Alberta and broke his collarbone.
“It was a depressing fall,” recalls Woods, who calls the eighth broken bone of his athletic career unquestionably the most painful one. “I went from (pro) teams being interested in me to radio silence.”
Eventually an offer did come in from an Italian professional cycling team called Amore & Vita. Woods says it was “a great life experience” living in Italy, and “the tiny roads with crazy grades that are always covered with dust or oil” certainly served to build up his bike-handling skills, but his cycling journey with Amore & Vita proved largely forgettable.
A major lowlight was his March crash. The accident was likely part human error and part mechanical fault, Woods details, but the result was his rear wheel sliding out during a descent, and a face-first meeting with the pavement at 30 km/h.
“Mentally I wasn’t the same person,” notes Woods, who suffered a concussion that impacted him for six weeks. “Even now, if I touch the outside of my eye, my forehead will tingle.”
There were a number of issues that led Woods to leave Amore & Vita in June, but the biggest one was not wanting to be associated with those involved in doping, he underlines.
Woods was confident Amore & Vita’s Luca Benedetti was using performance-enhancing drugs, in particular when he asked a teammate if he could buy him insulin, which can boost stamina.
“I told the team before they hired him that he was suspect,” Woods recounts. “He’d already served a doping ban in the past. Then all of a sudden after disappearing for two years, he comes back and wins 18 amateur bike races in Italy. If you win 18 amateur bike races in Italy, and you’re clean, the best teams in the world give you a contract, not Amore & Vita.
“That fell on deaf ears. He was on the team.”
Benedetti’s performances were often “literally unbelievable,” underlines Woods, who finished second behind Benedetti on several occasions in the standings for the Tour de Beauce’s “king of the mountain” – a title awarded to the rider who reaches the top of the course’s hills fastest. Although a positive drug test later disqualified Benedetti’s results, a retroactive king of the mountain crown has little value for Woods.
“You get to wear the jersey for the week, you get the call out at the start, you get your picture in the paper and all that stuff. As a Canadian, I would have got a lot of media attention because it’s a Canadian race,” Woods explains, noting the publicity can help create racing and sponsorship opportunities.
“It pissed me off,” adds the renowned climbing specialist. “But one thing that makes me happy now is it shows the testing is working. He got busted. I felt bad about the human condition at one point this year because he was getting all this glory, but I was confident he was on drugs, and nothing was happening.
“People are always going to try to cheat. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have happened. He would have continued on his way and probably ended up on a higher pro team, making a lot more money.
“Our (directeur sportif), after the first stage of Tour de Beauce, where Luca won, he came up to me after and was like, ‘Why are you upset? You look like you’re not happy for Luca?’
“I didn’t really respond. I said something like, ‘Sure, I’m happy for him,’ but I wasn’t. It was so frustrating having to fake being happy for a teammate that I knew was cheating.
“Now I’m proud of myself for at least not losing all hope.”
Woods’ fortunes started to turn once he was back on home soil. The Tour de Beauce came during the period where athletes are allowed to transfer pro teams, and Woods already knew the races in Quebec would be his last with Amore & Vita, having secured an opportunity to ride for the 5-hour Energy Cycling Team thanks to former Stevens Racing/The Cyclery teammate Bruno Langlois.
Woods turned in a second-place performance in the Megantic stage of the Tour de Beauce, a major season highlight.
“For me to cross that line and get that result, after everything I’d been through, the emotion was so intense,” Woods recounts. “I’d gone through so much crap that season. I got super sick in Mexico, I had all these mechanical troubles in every race I did, I smashed my face in Italy – I just felt I couldn’t catch a break.
“Even in Megantic in that stage, my crank fell off and I had to go on a neutral bike. Half way through the race, I thought something just doesn’t want me to do well in this sport. But I overcame it.”
With 5-hour Energy, Woods took part in a 13-stage race in China as well as the Tour of Alberta, which the University of Michigan English grad describes in detail at rustywoods.wordpress.com – easily one of the most intriguing and well-written amateur athlete blogs on the web.
Woods earned mixed results at the somewhat unplanned races, but he saved a little bit in the tank to finish the season with some of the best performances of his career for the Sept. 12 and 14 Grand Prix Cycliste UCI World Tour events in Quebec City and Montreal – the only top-tier international circuit events held in North America.
Woods enjoyed plenty of hometown support in Montreal, with a number of friends biking or driving up for the race, sporting “Mike Woods fan club” T-shirts and writing encouragement on the pavement with chalk.
“There wasn’t a part on the course where I didn’t hear someone yell, ‘Go Woods-y!’” he smiles. “Another rider turned to me at one point and said, ‘Dude, you have a lot of fans!’ It was crazy.”
Woods’ goal for the race was to finish in the front group, but found himself poorly positioned heading into the final climb, where he needed to latch onto riders in the lead group or certainly be left behind for the remainder of the race.
“I just barely made it,” recalls Woods, who credited fellow Ottawa cyclist Matteo Dal-Cin for helping him to stay in contention early on by covering gaps in the pack. “When I got to the top, I saw double. I looked in front of me and I saw two riders, but it was just one guy. I was so messed up.
“But I dug that deep because I was like, ‘Everyone is here to watch you and cheer you on – you’re not dropping out of this thing.’
“Because of that, I made the front group and finished with some of the best riders in the world.”
Placing 26th out of 151 competitors, Woods was the top Canadian in the race, finishing within seven seconds of the winner, eventual World Championships silver medalist Simon Gerrans.
The result helped seal a contract for next season with Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies, a top North American team that is also home to several other top Canadian riders. It also earned Woods the opportunity to race at his first World Championships – one of three Canadians selected to compete in the elite men’s road race at the Sept. 22-28 event in Ponferrada, Spain.
Woods says “worlds was a great experience, but a huge disappointment” since he recorded a did-not-finish result. Struggling to remain upright on several downhills, Woods had to stop at one point to remove air from his over-inflated tire. He failed to join the front split in the peloton and was forced to retire when the leaders lapped him on the course.
“It was a good lesson, and I will be sure to not make the mistakes I made in Ponferrada, next year,” pledges Woods, who had another Ottawa rider join him at worlds – junior men’s 96th-place finisher Derek Gee.
Building towards Rio Olympics
Woods came into cycling with a high aerobic capacity thanks to his running days, but he’s had to learn race strategy on the fly. His bike-handling abilities lagged far behind his level of fitness initially, although Woods has seen “huge improvements” thanks to his experiences in the last three years.
Despite emerging as one of the top Canadians this season, Woods doesn’t expect to compete in the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games since the course beginning at Ontario Place will be mostly flat, and his greatest tool is climbing ability. But Rio 2016 ranks high on Woods’ list of objectives.
“Moving forward, that’s my big goal,” he indicates. “It’ll be a tough squad to make, but the Olympics is a hilly course from what I understand.”
Woods got to experience the thrill of representing his country and having a massive crowd cheering for him when he was the only Canadian in the breakaway group was barely reeled in during the final kilometres of the Quebec City Grand Prix race, and it’s a feeling he doesn’t take for granted.
“After breaking my foot in running, I never really expected to be on national teams again,” Woods recalls. “I’m living the dream right now. It’s pretty cool.”
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