By Martin Cleary
The start of the 2023 men’s professional cycling season has different meanings to Ottawa’s trio of endurance pedallers. For Derek Gee of Osgoode, ON., next week’s Santos Tour Down Under in Adelaide, Australia, will serve as his WorldTour debut in the first year of his three-year contract with Israel-Premier Tech.
For Michael Woods of Ottawa and Chelsea, PQ., the Tour de France will again be in his training plans. Tour organizers of the sport’s premier race have invited Israel-Premier Tech to send a team, after the squad lost its automatic qualification status for the next three years because it wasn’t one of the top 18 teams at the end of 2022.
For Alex Cataford of Ottawa, it’s the end of the road as a pro cyclist as he announced his retirement as a full-time athlete at the end of December. He wasn’t re-signed for a fifth season by Israel-Premier Tech for the 2023 season and was unable to connect with another WorldTour team.
“Ultimately, I have decided that it’s time for me to start the next chapter of life and will not continue to race,” Cataford, 29, outlined in a Twitter posting. “It was a tough decision, moving away from what I do best and what I have been doing the last 15 years. However, after some long, hard thoughts and talking with people close to me, I decided it was for the best.”
Cataford turned professional in 2013 with Team Garneau-Quebecor. After spending 2014 with Amore & Vita-Selle SMP, he rode with Silber Pro Cycling in 2015 and 2016. His experience on Continental teams took him to the Pro Tour Level, where he competed with UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team for 2017 and 2018.
His work as a team racer to help the best riders be successful caught the attention of the relatively new Israel Cycling program. He raced for the Israel Cycling Academy in 2019 and spent the past three years on the elite WorldTour stage with Israel Start-Up Nation in 2020 and 2021 and Israel-Premier Tech in 2022.
“When I look back at my years in the sport racing, I have zero regrets and enjoyed every minute of it,” he added. “Thinking of when I started as a young kid in Ottawa on a borrowed bike, I realized my wildest dreams of doing the biggest bike races in the world and racing at the pinnacle of the sport.
“I have met so many amazing people, made life-long friendships, (and) have unforgettable memories. The sport has truly made me the person I am today.”
Before joining the Israel Cycling program and helping his teammates find success and podium finishes, Cataford had some personal moments of celebration along the way.
In 2018, he was third in the General Classification (overall finish) at the Tour of Taihu Lake and 10th at the Colorado Classic. At the 2016 Tour of Alberta, he was fifth overall.
Cataford wants to remain in the sport and has a couple of projects on the go with cycling communities in Canada and Spain, where he is currently living.
“If there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that I will always keep riding, even if I don’t have a number on my back. Thanks everyone and see you out on the road,” he concluded.
As Cataford departs the down-sized Israel-Premier Tech program, Gee steps up to fill one of the 29 berths on its Pro Cycling Team roster, after spending 2022 with Israel Cycling Academy.
Gee is considered a time-trial specialist on the team and joins Canadians Guillaume Boivin and Hugo Houle, who are Classic race specialists, and Woods, who is a highly-respected climber.
During the six-stage Santos Tour Down Under, Gee will be supporting notable GC riders like Chris Froome, a four-time Tour de France champion, South Africa’s Daryl Impey and Australia’s Simon Clarke.
The only Canadian rider in the WorldTour race, Gee, 25, had his busiest cycling season in 2022 with the academy team. He raced in 19 Pro Tour-Level competitions, which spanned 30 days and covered 4,401 kilometres. In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic restricted him to only two Canadian championship races.
Until last year, road racing was strictly a summer-time focus for Gee as he prepared for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which were staged a year later. Gee was a member of Canada’s successful men’s team pursuit squad on the oval track and finished fifth at the Olympics.
In the build-up to the Olympics, Gee helped the team pursuit group place third at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and fourth at the 2019 world championships.
His best road results have unfolded at the Canadian championships, where he won the men’s senior time trial in 2022 and earned bronze medals in the road race and time trial during the 2021 nationals. He also was the 2015 national junior time-trial champion. In his debut season in 2014, he was eighth overall in the Tour de l’Abitibi Desjardins.
While Gee will be spending his time riding the roads of Australia, Woods will continue training for his 11th pro season and his first 2023 race, the Faun-Ardèche Classic on Feb. 25-26.
It will be one of Woods’ preparatory steps as he hopes to compete in his fourth Tour de France. He placed 32nd overall in his Tour debut in 2019, but didn’t finish the races in 2021 and 2022. He missed the final stage last year, after testing positive for COVID-19. But in his last two Tours, he earned third-place stage results each time.
At the end of the 2022 WorldTour season, Israel-Premier Tech was the 20th ranked team based on its results over the past three seasons. It needed to finish into the top 18 to be given automatic entry into all races for the next three years.
While it looked as though Israel-Premier Tech would be restricted to only single-day races as a Pro Tour team, the cycling authorities have looked favourably upon the team which produced two winners in the 2022 Tour de France.
Besides the invitation to its fourth Tour de France this year, Israel-Premier Tech’s schedule will look similar to 2022, racing in week-long stage races and one-day competitions.
“After racing our best-ever Tour de France in 2022, we are thrilled to return to the race this year for our fourth participation,” general manager Kjell Carlstrom said in an Israel-Premier Tech press release.
“With each participation, we have grown as a team and watching Simon Clarke and Hugo Houle claim two emotional stage victories last year was an absolute highlight of our team’s eight-year history. We are hungry for more and we will be lining up at this year’s Tour de France racing for victories and making our fans and partners proud to support IPT.”
Houle won Stage 16 with great assistance from Woods and dedicated his triumph to his late brother Pierrik. Clarke started the 2022 season without a team, but scored the biggest win of his career on the cobblestone roadway of Roubaix.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “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.
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