Michael Woods, former Canadian distance runner, making waves on cycling circuit
Switched to cycling after his elite track career was derailed by injury
Ottawa cyclist Michael Woods had high expectations for his UCI World Tour debut at the Santos Tour Down Under: top five overall and a top-three stage finish.
"From the outsider's perspective, those were pretty crazy goals," said Woods, who was listed at 125-1 by one oddsmaker to win last month in Australia.
But Woods, believing in his form and training, delivered for his new Cannondale Pro Cycling Team. He finished third on Stages 3 and 5 en route to a fifth-place overall finish.
Fellow Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, a former Cannondale team member who now rides for Trek-Segafredo, was already a believer. He knows Woods is traditionally fast out of the blocks to start the season and that the Australian course suited him.
"I knew he'd be gunning for the race," said Hesjedal. "He made good on that. You couldn't ask for a better start."
It's all the more impressive, considering the 29-year-old Woods' late switch to cycling after an elite track career was derailed by injury.
A Pan American junior champion over 1,500 metres, the five-foot-nine 140-pounder earned a track scholarship at the University of Michigan. But his Olympic dream was blocked by a recurrent stress fracture in his foot.
He struggled for close to four years with the injury, which he believes was due to overtraining. He broke his foot the first time in 2007 and again in 2009. His last attempt at a track comeback ended with another break in 2011.
"For sure, the injuries I had from running I'm grateful for now. At the time it was the hardest thing I've had to go through," he said.
"I love cycling now," he added. "I feel really fortunate to be doing this sport."
The 2007 injury prevented him from going to Europe that summer in search of an Olympic qualifying time. On the plus side, he stayed in Ottawa and met his wife Elly.
'She was my sugar-momma'
During rehab, he used to get on his dad's bike and go for a spin.
"I really started falling in love with the fact that I could ride and it would not hurt, like not actually cause physical damage to my body."
He credits Elly for believing in his dreams and paying the bills while he worked his way up the cycling ladder. "She was my sugar-momma," he said.
To help make ends meet, he spent eight months as a bank teller and managed a running shoe store.
Woods still has two pins in his left navicular bone and says while the injury is manageable, "it will never fully heal."
"The density in the bone is very limited. And because of that if I run really hard, I just break it."
Woods signed with Cannondale last August after impressing with Optum Pro Cycling.
The high of his fifth-place finish in Australia was followed by some everyday reality as he and his wife flew to Girona, Spain, to set up their new apartment. Located 100 kilometres northeast of Barcelona and about a 30-minute drive to the coast, Girona is home to many cyclists including Hesjedal.
"A magical little town," said Woods.
Girona also serves as the start of the one of the stages of the Volta a Catalunya, which starts March 21. Both Woods and Hesjedal will be taking part.
Cannondale boss Jonathan Vaughters calls Woods a "true professional."
"He's hard as nails yet a very insightful and intelligent young man," Vaughters says on the team website. "I cannot express how excited I am to see him surprise many in the big show."
Woods' Olympic dream lives on, this time in cycling.
Thanks to the fine performance of Woods and other Canadians in 2015, Canada has earned three spots in the road race at the Rio Olympics. Hesjedal was the lone Canadian rider four years ago in London.
"The course really suits me," said Woods. "It's a really hilly course and I think I have a very good shot at not only representing Canada but also succeeding there and being a leader at that race."
In addition to the Rio Olympics, he is targeting La Fleche Wallonne — one-third of the historic Ardennes Classics — in April in Belgium. It's a one-day race with a hilly profile.
He enjoys climbing. "I find it plays into my abilities as a runner."
Woods is still a cycling work in progress, not having as much experience in its tactics and technique as those who started much younger.
Working on his time trial skills is a major goal with Wood crediting the support of B2ten, a privately funded organization that helps Canadian athletes in their pursuit of excellence. Cannondale also sent him to the velodrome in Los Angeles in November to help work on his positioning and aerodynamics.
He's loving every minute.
"I'm effectively playing a game and I'm getting paid very well to do that. And treated like a rock star. It's incredible."