Friday, May 24, 2024

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Despite confidence, fitness troubles, Michael Woods excited about third career Giro d’Italia

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By Martin Cleary

Ottawa’s Michael Woods has an extremely tough act to follow, when he starts his third career Giro d’Italia cycling marathon Saturday in Turin.

The experienced Israel-Premier Tech rider watched from afar last year as his gritty teammate Derek Gee of Osgoode, ON., unexpectedly and consistently broke out of the peloton to become one of the heartwarming stars in the opening Grand Tour event.

Competing in his first Grand Tour, Gee was simply hoping to survive the grind, but instead thrived to the delight of the international cycling community. He had four second-place and two fourth-place finishes, was second overall in the points and mountain classifications and earned the Combativity Award.

But the roles are reversed this year.

Woods, 37, will be on the start line with a strong Israel-Premier Tech squad, while Gee recovers from his 14th-place finish in Wednesday’s Eschborn-Frankfurt single-day race. Gee “will focus on other objectives this year,” according to his team.

Matching or bettering the success that Gee had in last year’s 21-day stage race might be a tall order for Woods, who battled several viruses earlier this season. While he’s questioning his form entering the 107th annual Giro, his determination, athleticism and ability to climb mountains could serve him well as his Giro extends into the third week of the physical and mental challenge.

The former Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club middle-distance runner is planning to take a slow-and-steady approach to his 11th Grand Tour as he aims to win his first Giro stage race and complete a career triple play. He won a stage at the 2023 Tour de France and also has had two wins in the Spanish Vuelta.

“It has been six years since I have been to the Giro and I’m really excited to be doing it again,” Woods said in an Israel-Premier Tech press release this week.

Woods posted three top-10 results in each of the 2017 and 2018 Giros. The 2017 Giro was his first Grand Tour.

“I’ve had a tough start to the (2024) season with some illness, but I feel like that is finally behind me and now it’s time for one of the coolest races on the calendar,” he added before detailing his race strategy.

“My big ambition for the race will be stage hunting (racing for a win). Particularly with the illness that I’ve had in the last few months, I will aim to have a conservative start and then look for stages later on as the race progresses.

“So, hopefully I can find some form in the early stages and then be aggressive and bag a stage win by the end of the race.”

That unusual approach worked for Woods once in 2018. A crash at the Tour of Utah left Woods with horrible road rash on his leg. He flew home to Europe, needed extended hospitalization and took a course of antibiotics.

He seriously questioned if he would be ready for the upcoming Spanish Vuelta, the third and final Grand Tour of the season. But an official with Team EF Education First – Drapac presented by Cannondale convinced him to enter, work his way to better health and form, and hopefully discover improvement by the third and final week. A doubting Woods persisted and won Stage 17.

Michael Woods wining a stage at the Vuelta a España. File photo

Woods will launch himself into this year’s Giro, which ends May 26, wishing he was much better prepared for the more than 3,400 kilometres ahead of him.

“I’ve had a very difficult start to the season,” he told Canadian Cycling Magazine reporter Matthew Pioro in their picnic-table conversation on Friday.

“Several viruses have really impacted my performances. My confidence is lower. Fitness isn’t great. It’s probably one of the worst forms I’ve ever entered a Grand Tour in, but I’m still excited to get into the race.”

Since Woods isn’t pushing for the overall General Classification title, he can ease into the race and hope to strike later.

“Ideally, I’ll get a bit of an advantage on guys who have to take more risks and push themselves more,” Woods told Pioro.

Woods can boost his confidence somewhat knowing he has had individual stage success in his two Giros, despite placing 19th overall in 2018 and 38th in 2017. He was second in Stage 4 of the 2018 Giro and also recorded ninth- and 10th-place showings. At the 2017 Giro, Woods registered two fifths and one ninth.

He may also want to plug into the success Gee had a year ago.

Gee’s six top-four results included a pair of emotional sprints to the finish for runner-up results, which saw him post the same time as the stage winner.

Besides being No. 2 in the points and mountains classifications, Gee also held the same ranking in the intermediate sprint classification and the breakaway classification. He was courageous in his breakaways from the peloton and cycled 483 kilometres separated from the pack during his seven breaks.

“Last year, the Giro d’Italia was a turning point for Israel-Premier Tech,” said sports director Rene Andrie. “We may not have won a stage, but the way the team rode was nothing short of inspiring and coming so close to a victory on so many occasions has made us even hungrier this year.

“We have a strong team of opportunists and we will be targeting stage wins once again.”

Andrie expects Woods and Australians Simon Clarke and Nick Schultz will challenge for stage wins with the support of teammates Marco Frigo of Italy, Hugo Hostetter of France, Riley Pickrell of Victoria, B.C., Nadav Raisberg of Israel and Ethan Vernon of Great Britain.

Woods and Pickrell, 22, are the only two Canadians competing in this year’s Giro.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.

Martin can be reached by e-mail at martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.


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