Canadian cyclist Michael Woods is turning heads in just his second Grand Tour event.
The 30-year-old from Ottawa enters the final week of the Spanish Vuelta riding high in eighth place, holding a 33-second edge over three-time winner Alberto Contador of Spain in ninth. And Woods is contending despite the uncertainty concerning the future of his Cannondale-Drapac racing team.
Cannondale-Drapac, managed by Slipstream Sports, is reeling from the loss of a sponsor. A crowdfunding effort had raised US$2.4 million as of early Monday but the goal is $7 million.
British star Chris Froome leads the general classification standings of the 21-stage, 3,324.1-kilometre race, which ends next Sunday in Madrid. Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali is second, 61 seconds behind, with Russian Ilnur Zakarini another 1:07 back.
Woods is 3:26 behind Froome going into Tuesday’s 40.2-kilometre individual time trial.
Prior to the sponsorship setback, Woods had been in discussions with Cannondale-Drapac about a 2018 deal. The uncertainty has changed all of that, with more than 100 employees wondering about their future.
The fact the news came out during the first week of the Vuelta did not help matters.
“I didn’t feel like I was in a bike race for certain periods in the race, just because we — (the) guys on the team — were so focused on where we were going to go next year or who we were going to sign with,” Woods said in an interview.
He spent part of Monday’s off-day talking to other teams about possible employment in 2018.
“It doesn’t feel like a rest day at all,” he said.
The hope is Cannondale-Drapac survives — Wood is indebted to the team for taking on a green latecomer to the sport — but has to think about his future.
In many ways, Woods is racing for his job.
Woods credits B2ten, a privately funded organization that helps Canadian athletes, for his growth in the sport. Their assistance included a two-month high altitude training camp in Colorado this summer.
“I kind of suffered like a dog every day on the bike and came of the training camp in the best shape of my life,” he said. “When I came to the race here, I told my team “I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m ready to do something special.’ And the team believed in what I’ve said and they’ve been super-supportive of me here. The teamwork that has gone into my performance here has been unreal.”
Woods pointed to team captain Simon Clarke of Australia as a major help.
“His leadership has been incredibly influential on my performance, just making sure I’m in position at key moments and just not making mistakes that I have made normally in the past, because I lack a bit of experience.”
Woods was also bolstered by his performance at the Giro d’Italia, where he posted a pair of fifth-place stage finishes en route to 38th place in the general classification. The results were all the more impressive given that his schedule had been focused on several one-day races ahead of the Giro.
“It showed me that I do belong racing at the grand Tour level on the World Tour,” he said.
He also took notice of how veteran teammate Pierre Rolland of France attacked the Giro course.
“His level of heroics in races was really inspirational. He really showed me that I can go deeper and suffer more and attack harder. All of those things have contributed to me racing so well here in Spain.”
Tuesday’s time trial may tell the tale for where Woods finishes in the final standings. While four of the five stages after that offer some difficult climbs, they are short and Woods believes he can perform well on them.
A former elite distance runner, Woods switched to cycling due to a recurrent stress fracture in his foot. His last attempt at a track comeback ended with another break in 2011.
After signing with Cannondale in August 2015, he made waves with a fifth-place finish at the Santos Tour Down Under in January 2016.
Despite breaking his hand in three places and injuring his back three months later after crashing during Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the third of the Ardennes Classics one-day races, Woods managed to compete in the Rio Olympic road race.
He finished 55th on a hilly 256.4-kilometre Olympic course that saw 78 competitors not finish and two complete the race over the time limit. The race was so gruelling he vomited during one climb.