In 2012, when Chris Froome placed second overall in the Tour de France behind Bradley Wiggins, Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) was racing in his first event as an amateur. Now – pinching himself – he is riding alongside Froome in the Vuelta a España's mountains.
The Canadian already impressed in his Grand Tour debut in the Giro d'Italia this May. In the Vuelta's stage up the steep and short Santa Lucía in Alcossebre, he remained with Froome, Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) to the finish.
"I am really honoured to be racing those guys and be up with them," 30-year-old Woods told Cycling Weekly. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I'm riding up the climbs and I'm in their wheels."
Woods excelled as a runner until an injury forced him to stop at 20 years old. He finished his university degree in English and worked at a running-shoe store. By chance, he started racing after using his father's bike.
After huge gains and a contract with American WorldTour team Cannondale-Drapac, he is making waves at the top level. This year, he was instrumental in Pierre Rolland's stage win in the Giro. But he remains a bit of an unknown.
"The advantage is that you're not a marked man and you don't do tons of interviews need to have all the pressure. You have all the cameras around. I get to walk around like a normal guy where as you see Chris Froome with his bodyguard and always surrounded by the fans. He's in full lock-down mode every day," Woods said with a laugh.
"I have talked to Chris before and I've read his book, which was a good read and inspiring. He came from nothing on the bike and any guy who does that, I have a lot of respect for. Another guy like that is Rigoberto Urán."
Woods is not kidding himself. The big mountains are yet to come in the final two weeks of the Vuelta a España. But, he is not holding back.
"My time trial is not that great and I have not been on my time trial bike in the last two months. It's a weakness of mine. I think it's better if I work on it, but I won't ride at the same level as some of the other guys.
Watch: Vuelta a España stage seven highlights
"I need to make inroads in the mountains if I want to protect my GC position. The big goal of the team is winning a stage here and my GC is secondary to that. Even if I had to drop back to help Tom Van Asbroeck in a sprint stage, I will do so.
"Racing for GC is a huge burden with that pressure to have that every day 24 hours a day and I am not habituated to that yet. It lightens the load on me to have ambitions for stage wins."
Two big mountains are planned this weekend, including the second of nine summit finishes on Sunday to Cumbre del Sol. Insiders will certainly be watching closely to see just how far Woods can go.
"At this point, I am really going into the unknown. I have not been in a GC position in a Grand Tour before. And this is only my second one and so I don't know how respond and the next two weeks."
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