Woods battling for Utah GC with an eye towards Vuelta, worlds

Mike Woods is looking to show of his climbing legs at the Tour of Utah with the Vuelta a España and the world championships on the horizon.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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PAYSON, Utah (VN) — Mike Woods (EF Education First-Drapac) has big ambitions for the second half of his season.

Currently at the top of his list of priorities is the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, Woods’s first race back since the Giro d’Italia in May. The Utah runner-up in 2015, Woods is one of three EF riders sitting inside the top 10 overall after three days of racing, with 2015 winner Joe Dombrowski and Hugh Carthy also looking sharp.

However things play out in Utah, Woods will have a plane to catch after the final stage.

“The big goal from Tour of Utah is to come out of here with good race prep prior to the Vuelta [a España],” he told VeloNews on Wednesday. “I also want to do well at worlds. The world championships really suit me, and I think the Vuelta and the world champs are the big ‘Xs’ on the calendar.”

In short, Woods has a busy few months ahead.

The first half of his season was a mixed bag. He spent the offseason focusing on his development as a grand tour racer on the heels of his impressive seventh overall finish at the 2017 Vuelta. Nonetheless, he proved in April that he was still just as dangerous as a punchy one-day racer, riding to runner-up honors at Liège-Bastogne-Liège behind winner Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors).

His Giro ride in May, however, did not quite go according to plan. He looked strong through the first week, finishing second in stage 4, but then fell ill and dropped out of the GC fight. He finished 20th overall.

“This past Giro was savage,” he said. “This grand tour was that hardest grand tour I’ve ever done. From a parcours perspective it was really difficult; the way it was raced was extremely difficult.”

That said, Woods feels better prepared for his upcoming objectives thanks to the difficulties he faced in Italy.

“The last 14 days I was sick and I just got sicker and sicker. I had to go on antibiotics. I had a really bad lung infection and just suffered every day,” he said. “That made me realize how much deeper I could go. It showed me my limits, and I’m a better rider because of it.”

Michael Woods on the Mt. Nebo climb in stage 2 of the Tour of Utah. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

The Vuelta, known for its constant stream of punchy climbers’ stages, will give Woods more chances to explore his limits. After all, it worked out last year — Woods rode through illness to finish 38th in Italy in 2017, and then powered to a top 10 in Spain a few months later.

Further down the road is Woods’s other big target, the world championship road race. This year’s battle for the rainbow jersey will take place in Innsbruck, Austria, on a mountainous course that has climbing stars like Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and even Richie Porte (BMC) eager for a rare shot at a world title.

Woods knows he doesn’t quite have the name recognition as the various grand tour winners on the list of pre-race favorites, but his Liège result and recent stage racing success point to the kind of skillset expected to thrive on the worlds parcours.

“There’s guys showing up that have won grand tours and won big monuments. I’m still not that guy so I still get to fly under the radar a bit and take advantage of that situation,” Woods said.

Before he dons a Canadian national team jersey or even takes on the hilly roads of Spain, however, Woods has a Tour of Utah to race, and he’s not flying under the radar here. Multiple GC rivals have pointed to EF as the team to beat. Woods, Dombrowski, and Carthy all put in attacks on Mount Nebo in Wednesday’s stage 2, won by Sepp Kuss (LottoNL-Jumbo).

Woods will head into stage 3 sitting 39 seconds down on race leader Kuss, closely matched with most of the other pre-race GC contenders after a solid prologue performance. It’s a credit to the work Woods has put in to improve against the clock. The time trial has been a major focus of his training since he first showed his grand tour potential last year.

“I rode a good prologue, which is something I’ve never really done before,” he said. “To be only 14 seconds off of Tejay and in the mix with the rest of the climbers is a position I haven’t found myself in post-prologue or post-time trial during my career. I’m happy with that.”

In other words, things have gone according to plan in the early stages of his second block of racing this season.

The challenging Mount Nebo climb was the first major GC test in Utah, but the biggest challenges are still to come. Stages 5 and 6 will close the Tour of Utah with a one-two punch of tough days for the climbers.

Woods and the EF team won’t have long to wait for more opportunities to test their climbing legs.

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