Canadian rider Michael Woods enjoyed a banner year in 2021, posting a number of top-five finishes including at the Tokyo Olympics and becoming only the second Canadian to wear the polka-dot jersey as king of the mountains during the Tour de France.
The 35-year-old from Ottawa says he wants to take it to the next level this year with the Israel-Premier Tech team, previously known as Israel Start-Up Nation. Quebec's Premier Tech, which operates in 30 countries, has switched teams after sponsoring Astana.
Woods said the Tokyo Olympic road race has become a major motivation.
He led a portion of the 234-kilometre race and was involved in the final sprint, but was unable to crack the top three with Ecuador's Richard Carapaz winning gold. Woods finished fifth.
"It was bittersweet. To have done so well but not come back with a medal was disappointing but also exhilarating. It was so cool being in the front of the race," Woods said in an interview from Girona, Spain.
"I'll forever reflect on that race and think of what I could have done differently to have won," he added. "I know if I had played my cards maybe a bit differently, there was an opportunity to medal, if not win."
The experience has convinced him to keep going "at least" until the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Woods also placed fifth overall at last year's Tour de Romandie, Tour de Suisse and Tour of Britain. He was second at the Tour des Alpes-Maritimes et du Var, fourth at the La Fleche Wallonne and fifth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
"It (2021) was certainly my most successful season of my career, the best season of my career," Woods said. "I'm really proud of it. But at the same time, it's left me hungry for more. I felt like I was so close on several occasions to just getting a big win."
"So all those things have motivated me. They've shown me I'm capable of being there. But also capable of winning," he added. "Now it's time for me to just actually do that, put the bike over the line first. That's my objective for this year."
Woods has already won one battle — recovering from COVID-19.
"Unfortunately my daughter came back from daycare and took the whole Woods family down," said the father of two.
He said the symptoms were "quite mild."
"It being Omicron and also because we're all vaccinated, it didn't hit us too hard. I only missed a few days of training … I took the allotted isolation period and came back and really didn't feel that I lost too much. The first few days I wasn't feeling great but I feel like I'm coming back into the form I was at this time last year"
Woods has his eye on several races in 2022.
"My big goal in cycling is to win a Monument (race) or a global championships. And I haven't done that yet," Woods said at the Israel-Premier Tech team presentation Thursday in Girona "I've come close."
The Monuments are five classic one-day races: Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy. Woods is targeting the Tour of Lombardy and Liege-Bastogne-Liege as well as Spain's Volta a Catalunya.
Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Amstel Gold Race and La Fleche Wallonne make up the Ardennes Classic, three prestigious one-day races in mid-April in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Woods also wants to make his mark at the Tour de France.
"My big ambition is to try and win a (Tour) stage," he said.
He won stages in the Spanish Vuelta in 2018 and 2020 and was runner-up at a stage in the 2018 Giro D'Italia.
Woods finished third in Stage 8 of last year's Tour and joined Alex Stieda (in 1986) in wearing the polka-dot jersey during the race.
He pulled out of the race after the 18th stage to give himself more time for the trip to Tokyo. After the Games, he arrived home just 24 hours before wife Elly gave birth to son Willy.
Woods subsequently won the mountain classification in the Tour de Suisse.
Woods, starting his second year with Israel-Premier Tech, said he learned a lot riding last year with Ireland's Dan Martin, who has since retired, and expects to do the same this year with newly signed Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang.
Woods finished second at the 2018 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and fifth in 2019 when Fuglsang won with Astana. He noted Canadian Ryder Hesjedal helped set up Martin's Liege win in 2013. Hesjedal, riding for Garmin-Sharp, finished eighth that year.
"I feel like at the Classics, particularly now, if you have a two-pronged approach, it makes a huge difference," Woods said. "With Jakob, I know I can learn so much more from him. He's a great rider. I've always loved watching him race."
With Hugo Houle of Sainte-Perpetue, Que., coming on board, Israel-Premier Tech now boasts five Canadian riders with Ottawa's Alexander Cataford and Montreal's Guillaume Boivin and James Piccoli all returning.
Woods is excited about racing with Houle again. The former Astana rider has supported Woods twice at the Olympics as well as the world championship.
"He's such a great guy, such a great teammate he's going to really help bring everyone's level up. Now we have five Canadian riders in the (UCI) WorldTour on this team, I think we're really going to set the bar high and lead by example. And when you have Canadians having success … at the highest level, it inspires others to do well."
Founded in 2014 as the Israel Cycling Academy, the team is co-owned by Canadian-born Sylvan Adams, a former Canadian Masters cycling champion who emigrated to Israel in 2015. Paulo Saldanha, the team's performance director, is also Canadian.
"Those two are the reason why I'm a pro cyclist today," Woods, a former middle-distance runner, said of the support he received early in his cycling career from Adams and Saldanha.
"When I came over, they'd already created an environment for me to succeed. And really try and put Canadian cycling on the map. And with Premier Tech now coming on board, it really does feel like this is Canada's team. If you're a Canadian back home watching this team, you have a team to root for."
Woods' first outing is next month's Ruta del Sol, a five-stage race in Spain.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press