Sport: Road Cycling
Event: Men’s Road Race
Local Club: Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club
By Martin Cleary
OLYMPIC BOUND: Long before Michael Woods was a record-breaking runner, a sub-four-minute miler and a gutsy pro cyclist climbing world-class mountains, he was like any other young Canadian kid.
The Hillcrest High School grad from Ottawa played hockey and aspired to skate in the NHL. His dream was even more specific as he wanted to play left wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Maybe, he’s what the Leafs are missing.
As a hockey player, he understood the finer points of the game, including the situation of being shorthanded, whether it was a few key players missing on the game roster or his team playing down a skater because of a penalty.
Well, Woods will face a similar situation at the Musashinonomori Park start line for the 234-kilometre Olympic men’s cycling road race in northeastern Tokyo. He’ll have two support riders, while key riders from some stronger countries will have four each.
Woods, the lead rider on the Israel Start-Up Nation squad who has the support of seven teammates at the current Tour de France, can only rely on Hugo Houle of Ste-Perpetue, Que., and Guillaume Boivin of Montreal at the Games.
Canada qualified a team of three riders for the men’s Olympic road race based on international rankings at the end of 2019. That number matches the 2016 Rio Games team size. Canada only had one rider for the men’s road race at the 2012 London Olympics. Nations can have one to five riders for the road race.
Woods and Houle were pre-selected to the team in early 2020. Boivin was recently announced as the third rider. All three are in the Tour de France – Woods and Boivin, Israel Start-Up Nation; Houle, Astana-Premier Tech.
“Of course, to have a full team of five riders would be the best to help support Mike,” Ottawa’s Alex Cataford wrote in an email. “However, being a smaller cycling nation, Canada did well to qualify three spots.”
Cataford, who rides professionally for Israel Start-Up Nation and also is supporting Woods during the Tour de France, was named by Cycling Canada as one of three men’s road race non-travelling alternates.
“I believe this will be enough in the end to support Mike, but the team will need to adjust the tactics accordingly,” he added. “They may need to be a bit more conservative with the support riders early in the race to make sure Mike has guys around him in the last 100 kilometres, when it is more critical.
“Anyways, the team tactics at the Olympics is always a bit different compared to the professional peloton, given the much smaller team sizes, so the team will just have to be intelligent, when they use the limited support resources.”
Woods also will have Steve Bauer calling the shots in the Canadian team car. Bauer, the Cycling Canada road sports director, won Canada’s first Olympic road cycling medal, a silver, at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
“We have gone all-in for Mike at the Olympics,” Kris Westwood, Cycling Canada’s high-performance director, wrote in an email. “Both of his teammates will be riding 100 per cent to support him.”
The Olympic men’s road race is traditionally a single-day ultramarathon. In his first Olympics in Rio in 2016, an injured Woods placed 55th over the hilly 237.5-kilometre course, which suited his style.
“With such a mountainous course, the strategy is pretty simple: keep Mike safe, hydrated, fed and sheltered up to the 14-kilometre-long Fuji Sanroku climb, where we can expect the first major selection to take place over the top of this climb at 140 kilometres,” Westwood added.
“Hopefully, one of Mike’s teammates will make it over in the front group and can help place him for the critical Mikuni pass climb at 200K.”
At this point, the final group should be formed and Woods can use his “massive physiological capacity,” as Cataford refers to it, to surge to the Fuji International Speedway finish, near the iconic Mount Fuji.
“I think the parcours (course) is challenging enough that if Mike has good legs on the day, he will be able to deliver a result,” Cataford wrote. “There is a very hard climb with about 40 kilometres to go in the race, and I expect only a select group to make it over in the front.
“So, the strategy will be to help Mike conserve his energy until that last climb and then it will be up to him to go toe-to-toe with the other contenders.”
During his decade of cycling, Woods has carried his fitness from the track as a talented middle-distance runner and meshed it with his ever-improving tactics and bike-handling skills to become a consistent World Tour rider.
Woods has been a model of consistency this season. In five of his six stage races, including the Tour de France, he has had podium finishes (three firsts, four seconds, two thirds). He was third in Stage 8 of the Tour de France for his first podium in that legendary race.
“Mike is tough and we’ve put the right people around him,” Westwood concluded. “Nothing is guaranteed in sport, but we think we have our best shot at a men’s Olympic road medal since 1984.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.