The Iconoclast Climber: Michael Woods

From issue 84 • Interview and images by James Startt

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From four-minute miler to Hunter S. Thompson aficionado, Canadian cyclist Michael “Rusty” Woods is a true iconoclast. After injury plagued his once-promising running career, the Toronto native turned professional in 2013 for a small domestic team and within three years was riding on a UCI WorldTour team—now called EF Education First. And although in 2018 he finished second at a monument, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, took bronze at the road worlds and won a mountain stage of the Vuelta a España, Woods, at 32, is still very much a neophyte in the sport of cycling. And he could not be happier!

Michael, you have one of the most interesting backgrounds in professional cycling, because you thought for most of your life you would be a long-distance runner and only came to cycling late. Yeah, I had a full scholarship to the University of Michigan for track and cross-country. I ran a 3:57 mile when I was 18, which was the fastest time in the world for a junior at the time that year, and I broke the Canadian junior record doing that—a record that still stands. I have the Canadian junior record in the 3,000-meter event as well. So as I was coming up as a runner I was being pegged as the next great Canadian runner, and I was really focused on going to the Olympics.

I came to Michigan really flying and had the best time in the mile at the NCAA indoors that winter. But I just couldn’t keep it together from a health perspective. I just kept breaking down. My mileage was too high. My diet was terrible. It’s amazing knowing what I know now and having the coaching and the support I have now. The science just wasn’t as good in the early 2000s as it is now. Take nutrition for example. I was just counting calories instead of thinking of having a fully balanced diet. All of those things contributed to having a stress fracture in the left navicular bone in my foot. I had two operations, in 2008 and 2010, but ended up breaking the foot again in my first race back in 2011. As my career started to nosedive I started cycling, because I needed to cross train, and so during my long periods of injury I started riding a bike. First, I just was riding with friends. Then I went on some group rides and slowly I just fell in love with the sport.

What did you study at Michigan? English. English Literature. The best part about my running career was that it gave me a great education. I had a really good academic experience, something I think is often lacking in cycling.

So are you a big reader? Yes.

Do you have favorite authors or books? Well, I read anything and everything. I just finished a book called “To The Edges of the Earth,” by Edward Larson. It’s about exploration of the North and South Poles in 1909. But my favorite writer is probably Hunter S. Thompson. I really like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

What was the hardest part of the transition from running to cycling? Obviously, as endurance sports, they share certain affinities. But there are a lot of differences too. Yes, in terms of devotion and discipline, they are similar. But for me the biggest difference was probably the tactics and technical side of the two sports; they are completely different. Cycling is a lot more intense mentally. The sheer length of bicycle races is really challenging. And then there is the fear. Fear is not a factor in running. The only fear is failure. But in cycling it is not just the fear of failure, but the fear of real danger, real threats to your body. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in the peloton.

You turned professional at age 26, in 2013, and you have been on an incredible learning curve ever since. But did you ever think that you would be finishing on the podium in great races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège or the world championships? No. My main goal when I first started cycling was to go to the Olympics because, as a runner, the Olympics is everything. So when I made the commitment to cycling, my goal was to make the Canadian Olympic team. That was my high bar that I didn’t think I would surpass. But I made the Olympic team in 2016. Unfortunately, three weeks before the race, I crashed [at the Tour of Poland] and didn’t do great [in Rio]—I found out later I had a partially displaced fracture in my left femur. But once I finished [the Olympic road race] I had to sit down and reset my goals because I felt as though I still had a lot of room to improve. I had to re-shift my focus. And each year I have set new goals and surpassed them.

Well you had an amazing season last year. Yeah, I showed to myself and to the cycling world that I can compete along with the best. For me it is just exciting and fun to be racing, because in every race I am surpassing my expectations. And to be on the podium in the best races in the world is just a massive rush. It’s a huge high. I don’t take it for granted at all. So now my goal is to be actively involved in each race.

Let’s look back at your 2018 results in Liège and the worlds. Were you surprised to be on the podium in Liège? Yeah, the lead-up to the race had not gone well. We had a lot of stress at home. My wife’s father ended up getting really sick and passed away just a month later. I also ended up getting really sick. I had food poisoning around the Tour of Abu Dhabi at the end of February and beginning of March and was in bed for a week. I was literally on my hands and knees. I wasn’t great in the Tour of the Basque Country and I just wasn’t great in every race leading up to Liège. But then at Liège, I just sat down on the bike and right from Kilometer 1, I was like, “Oh, I feel really good!” And throughout the whole day momentum was just building. And all of a sudden I was on Romain Bardet’s wheel when he attacked and we were fighting it out for second place.

The world championships was another day like that. Riding up to the start line, I had the same sensations as I did at Liège. I had a good level of confidence and the planning that went into that race, the preparation, everything, it just went so well. It was a bit of a surprise when I got away with Alejandro Valverde and Romain Bardet, but at the same time it was just an affirmation of all of the planning.

A lot of people thought you were actually the strongest guy on that final, ultra-steep climb at worlds. Yeah, I think I was. I felt really good on the climb, and I even thought I could win the sprint. But Valverde opened it up early. I felt good, but I just cramped up. I missed my final bottle and just had this massive electrolyte cramp.

Well, beating Valverde is never easy. No, it never is, but I really felt confident going into that sprint.

Hindsight is always 20/20 of course, but looking back do you think you should have tried to drop Valverde and Bardet on the climb? No, I really think I rode the best race possible. I think if I would have dropped them on the climb, they would have just come back to me on the descent or on the flat. But I’m not a guy who dwells on the past. I’m always looking forward.

Well, looking forward, what are your main goals in 2019? Well, I didn’t win the Tour Down Under, but I was an active participant in many stages [and then won a stage of the Herald-Sun Tour ahead of Richie Porte]. I’m really looking forward to the Ardennes classics and I really want to do the Tour de France this year. I really love where I am in the sport right now. I’m 32, but I still have so much to learn in this sport. It’s so nice to be at my age, and yet still almost feel like a kid. There is this whole world that I can learn about and explore. And in a more long term I am thinking already to the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

From issue 84. Buy it here.

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