Mike Woods recalls several "I-can't-believe-I'm-here" moments from his early days as a professional cyclist when he would rush things or get too excited riding amongst the top contenders in a race.
But the Ottawa native said those days are gone after holding his own against four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome and retiring Spanish great Alberto Contador in finishing seventh overall in the 21-day, 3,324-kilometre Spanish Vuelta stage race that ended Sunday in Madrid.
"Be excited and happy in the moment, but also focused on the task at hand, which is to win a bike race. I think that was the biggest mental step I took at this race," Woods said Monday over the phone following his debut in Spain's biggest cycling race in just his second season at the World Tour level.
"I didn't win a stage … but I was proud how I handled things mentally throughout the race."
A former elite distance runner, Woods is satisfied with his cycling performance in the four years since his track career was blocked by a stress fracture in his foot.
"I don't think I expected to get this far in the sport," said the 30-year-old Woods, who turned heads early in the 2016 season with a fifth-place finish in his first road race as a World Tour pro at the Tour Down Under in Australia
"The key for me to continue to succeed is enjoy where I'm at and not focus too much on the future," added Woods, who posted two fifth-place stage finishes and was 38th in general classification at another Grand Tour event, the Giro d'Italia, in May.
"It's one of the reasons why I ruined my running career. I had these great performances, breaking the Canadian record in the mile as a junior, and I didn't enjoy it. I'd cross the [finish] line and wonder what I'm going to do next and how am I going to get faster."
Initially, competing in Spain wasn't part of Woods' schedule after he placed eighth in mountains classification at the Tour de Suisse in early July and took a mid-season break. But team director Juanma Garate, after examining the course profile, believed the Vuelta suited his strengths, so Woods prepared by training with teammate Alex Howse for nearly a month at 7,800 feet in Nederland, Colo.
"Juanma has played a huge role in my development as a rider this season," said Woods of the former Spanish pro road racing cyclist. "He's done 26 Grand Tours and won stages at all three — Tour de France, Giro and the Vuelta. "He really helped guide me through the Giro and saw the opportunity for me at the Vuelta."
'Best individual performance'
Woods did experience "a lot of sleepless nights" during the Spanish Vuelta with the uncertain future of his Cannondale-Drapac team, which spent part of the summer seeking to survive and fill a $7 million US shortfall caused by a last-minute withdrawal of a potential commercial naming sponsor for the 2018 season.
But a relieved Woods took to the road on Saturday after Cannondale-Drapac, founded by former pro cyclist Jonathan Vaughters and owned by holding company Slipstream Sports, struck an agreement with EF Education First. The family-owned global education company will become the first naming partner of the American team and eventually become majority owner of Slipstream Sports.
On Aug. 28, one day after Cannondale-Drapac riders were informed the team could fold, Woods had "the best individual performance" of his career, finishing third in Stage 9 of the Vuelta. Rather than seek personal gain with their cycling futures in doubt, team members pulled together in an attempt to help Woods win the stage.
"It was real emotional finishing … that stage in particular," remembered Woods, who finished five seconds behind winner Froome in third. "With my team controlling the race, I got to ride shotgun with the whole peloton [pack of riders] behind us. We were getting so much respect from everybody in the race and I felt really honoured to have those guys sacrifice so much for me."
Having teammates "who are interesting and don't fit the typical mould of a professional cyclist" has helped Woods — a green latecomer to the sport — gain confidence.
'For me, I have the most success when I'm enjoying myself and the process of doing the activity.' — Canadian pro road racing cyclist Mike Woods on riding for Cannondale-Drapac
"You're constantly in this bubble for 21 days [at the Vuelta] where it's cycling, cycling, cycling all day, all night," he said. "It's so nice to go to the dinner table, sometimes, and not talk about cycling, and have dynamic conversations that aren't based on what gear you're going to use tomorrow or what jersey you're going to wear."
Woods and company filled the time talking about music, cracking jokes and having fun.
"For me, I have the most success when I'm enjoying myself and the process of doing the activity," said Woods. "Having those interesting people on the team and interesting staff members is relaxing and only going to help improve my performance."
Woods is eyeing two or three races before ending his season, including the 111th edition of Il Lombardia on Oct. 7, a one-day road cycling race formerly known as the legendary Giro di Lombardia in Lombardy, Italy.
"Right now, I'm so tired, but if I'm feeling good in a few days and my motivation is there, I'm going to try to win one of them," he said. "I haven't won a race in two years and I want to win a race."