HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Ottawa’s Michael Woods is off and pedalling in La Vuelta ciclista a España, which is his favourite Grand Tour event and the final one on the 2022 pro cycling calendar, after the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
And just like that, his goal of being one of the top finishers in the overall General Classifications standings has taken a slight hit, after the opening 23.3-kilometre team time trial in Utrecht, The Netherlands.
But the Hillcrest High School grad, who is in his 10th year as a pro cyclist, expected as much and isn’t worried in the least.
The first three stages of the Spanish Grand Tour will be held in The Netherlands before heading to Spain, where racing will resume on Tuesday, following a rest day on Monday.
The eight-rider Israel-Premier Tech team, which has Woods as its featured athlete, placed 16th out of 23 teams in the opening team time trial and finished 64 seconds behind Jumbo-Visma. Posting a time of 24 minutes, 40 seconds, Jumbo-Visma earned the first victory of the 2022 La Vuelta, which runs to Sept. 11 with 21 stages of riding and three rest days.
“I’m excited to take on the GC here and even if I lose time in the triple T (team time trial) there’s still more opportunities to get time back in Spain,” Woods said in an Israel-Premier Tech virtual press conference on Wednesday.
“Certainly, my two (past) wins at La Vuelta have both come in the back country and I love racing there on the road and I love the crowds. I’ve circled stage nine because it has a real four-kilometre climb. I look forward to that particularly.”
It’s easy to understand why Woods considers La Vuelta as his Grand Tour race of choice. In his first Spanish tour in 2017, he had five top-10 and nine top-15 results, including a third-place result in stage nine. His consistency brought him a seventh-place GC showing, which is his best Grand Tour overall result in six finishes. He didn’t complete the Tour de France in 2021 (Olympic preparation) and 2022 (COVID).
At the 2018 and 2020 La Vuelta races, Woods scored one stage victory in each tour event, but could only manage matching 34th-place GC results. Woods also recorded two second-place finishes in 2020.
Israel-Premier Tech teammate Chris Froome, who is racing his eighth La Vuelta and 21st Grand Tour overall, believes Woods can be successful in the overall standings if he looks at La Vuelta as a whole and not its individual stages.
“Mike’s challenge is riding the GC over three weeks,” Froome, a four-time Tour de France champion, said in the Zoom conference. “It’s the consistency over three weeks.
“He’ll have to deal with setbacks and deal with off days, when he’s not feeling 100 per cent, and making sure that the off days don’t turn into a disaster. If he can limit any kind of loss, because over three weeks, he’ll have days when it will be difficult.
“The challenge for him is to look at it as a three-week event. The route suits him. He has a great team to support him. We’re optimistic and hope he can be up there fighting for it.”
Although Woods has experienced a variety of ups and downs this season, he feels healthy and ready to be a GC contender.
“It has been a successful season,” said Woods, who entered this summer’s Tour de France having won his first career GC title at the four-stage La Route d’Occitanie-La Dépêche du Midi in France.
“I’ve had three wins this year and felt I did well in quite a few races,” Woods explained. “But I’ve had quite a bit of bad luck … with health illnesses – I got COVID twice and a bad bout of bronchitis – which impacted some of my biggest targets this season.”
His second COVID experience came on the final day of the Tour de France and he was unable to finish the Grand Tour event for the second year in a row.
Woods also played a major role in helping teammate Hugo Houle earn his first World Tour win at the Tour de France, which was an emotional moment for the team as he dedicated the win to his deceased brother. In that same Stage 16 race, Woods placed third to match his personal-best showing at the Tour de France. It was the first time two Canadians were on the medal podium at the same time for one Tour de France stage.
“I felt I came out of the Tour mentally fresher,” Woods said. “I felt ready for the GC approach (at La Vuelta).”
The 24-day La Vuelta will have six flat stages, two flat stages with high altitude finales, four hilly stages, seven mountain stages, one team time trial, one individual time trial and three rest days.
While Woods will be eyeing a top-notch GC result, he hopes to drive Israel-Premier Tech to an impressive overall team showing. Israel-Premier Tech is in a battle to earn enough team race points to maintain its standing as a licensed club on the World Tour for the next three years.
There are 23 World Tour teams in La Vuelta, but at the end of the season, the UCI (international cycling union) will grant only 18 licences for the 2023-25 cycle.
After Friday’s team time trial at La Vuelta, Jumbo-Visma topped the standings at 34,157.67 points, while Israel-Premier Tech sat in 20th place at 12,966.66 points.
Lotto Soudal and pro team TotalEnergies are the top two “virtually relegated teams,” which would make them wild-card entries into all the World Tour events for the next three years.
Israel-Premier Tech is third on that list and needs to score more points in races over the next three months to break into the top 18 or become one of the two wild-card entries. If it maintains its current position, Israel-Premier Tech will only receive a wild-card entry into the World Tour one-day races.
“Certainly, it plays on our minds,” Woods continued. “I think it certainly plays on the minds of a lot of riders how the guys are racing and how teams are chosen. But we’re in a fortunate position that despite the (points relegation) battle for us, the team will continue next year.
“Our big focus is racing. If you concentrate on the points, you won’t race well. If you try to win, the points will follow. There’s always pressure in a race, points or no points.
“If you don’t produce results in pro sports, you may be out of a contract or sponsors may be less interested. There’s always perceived external pressure, but we must let that fall to the wayside. We’re focusing on just winning races.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 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 email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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