I t started with what sounded like a fish story, though not about the one that got away, but rather one they couldn’t get away from: Cycling coach Paulo Saldanha heard a few veteran riders on the Montreal-based SpiderTech team talking about this guy who just came out of nowhere at a race in Ottawa, a local they didn’t know, who hadn’t graduated up the ranks of the cycling establishment. By their accounts, Saldanha recalls, this unknown “didn’t know how to ride, was absolutely raw and was on a bike that didn’t fit.” At a glance, this was a hobbyist, a recreational rider veteran racers would expect to drop after a few short minutes. Not how it played out, they told Saldanha. Late in the race, long, long, long after they should have dropped him, he was there, on their back wheels, hanging on for dear life. It was as improbable as a workout warrior from a boxercise class winning rounds from a pro, a player from a lunchtime pick-up game at the Y dropping a hook shot over a NBA vet, the three-handicapper staying with a PGA pro through nine. The guy just had no business being there. If he did, they’d know him, right?
Understandably, Saldanha had his doubts, but nonetheless he invited the mystery rider, Michael Woods, to come to a workout for SpiderTech riders in Sutton, Que., on a course with a bunch of tough climbs. He set the riders off at 30-second intervals across three minutes, Woods last among them. If the newcomer stayed within sight of the rider in front of him, that would be a small victory; if he closed or passed anyone, something remarkable. One by one, though, Woods reeled in each of the riders, passing the leader at the crest of the final hill, a gruelling climb. “Mike knew nothing about riding and had bad technique and equipment inferior to what the others were working with,” Saldanha says. “More than his conditioning and his physical ability, he had this dogged determination. He was completely spent at the end of the workout, but he was not going to let up.”
The question remained: Who was this five-foot-nine, 135-pound sliver of ginger-haired gristle who had only started riding a bike for anything more than occasional transportation a couple years earlier? Maybe it would have made sense if he had been a raw-but-gifted teenager, but Woods was no kid — he was, in fact, 27. Turned out though, he had once been considered a generational talent, the next big thing, just not in cycling. As an 18-year-old, he had been a phenom on the track, running a sub-four-minute mile, and had seemed a sure bet to win NCAA titles and compete for international ones. Having run his last race a couple of years before, he had taken up cycling as recreation, blissfully unaware that he was recreating himself right back into elite athletic competition, and so much more.
M ichael Woods was born in what was then the Toronto Borough of East York in 1986. His family moved to Ottawa by the time he was school age and his young sporting life played out conventionally. Hockey was his first game but he was too small and slight to make it out of house leagues. He looked for sports that better suited him and in Grade 9 at Hillcrest High School, he found one. “I went to my first track practice and fell in love with the atmosphere,” he says.
He enjoyed immediate success, winning the 2001 Ontario U15 cross-country championship. The effort-and-reward aspect of running appealed to him. “When you’re young, the harder you work, the better you get,” he says. By the end of high school, he ranked among the international elite, running a Canadian junior record 3:57.48 mile and winning the 1,500-metres at the Pan-Am Juniors, then making the Olympic B standard in the event at age 19. It looked like nothing but blue skies ahead, and a noteworthy international career seemed guaranteed. In retrospect, though, Woods tellingly describes himself as being “addicted” to track and believes that training and racing consumed him to an unhealthy degree. “It was really how I defined myself,” he says.
Woods had his pick of scholarship offers from NCAA programs and quickly settled on the University of Michigan. While Michigan’s athletic program is best known for the Wolverines’ football and hoops teams as well as its hockey history, the school is a destination of choice for middle-distance runners. “For any Canadian kids running the 800 and 1,500 back then, Kevin Sullivan [a multiple NCAA champion and three-time Olympian from Brantford, Ont.] was the man,” Woods says. “Because he went to Michigan, that’s where I wanted to go. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Says Sullivan, now a coach at Michigan: “Our careers didn’t overlap, really, different generations — I only raced against him one time but you could tell that he had a really competitive streak.”
In the early 2000s, the Michigan track program had signed up Alan Webb, a local kid who had shattered all U.S. high school records in the 1,500 and mile — Webb was an unlikely one-and-done, turning professional after one year with the Wolverines. Though Webb wasn’t around anymore, Woods joined a program that included a couple of elite upperclassmen: Nick Willis, a New Zealander who would later win two Olympic medals in the 1,500, and Nate Brannen, who represented Canada in the event at the Games three times. “I figured I could run with anybody and I tried to go toe-to-toe with them, but after three or four years that led to me falling apart,” Woods says.
When Woods says “toe-to-toe” he’s speaking figuratively, but the metaphor aligns with the injuries he suffered: stress fractures of his left foot. A couple of surgeries, hiatuses from racing and training, and seemingly no end of rehab only provided temporary relief. “As soon as I raced on it, I’d reinjure myself,” he says.
Going back decades, NCAA track programs have earned a notorious reputation for over-training and over-racing their middle- and long-distance runners, prioritizing collegiate results over long-term development. This was the case for Woods at Michigan. Revisiting those years remains a painful exercise for him. He avoids using Ron Warhurst’s name and instead mentions “a legendary coach who was not good at keeping the governor” on the runners’ workloads. Woods even accepts a significant share of the blame for his plight — as much as he was pushed, he pushed himself. “I had this arrogance,” he says. “I just had this idea that I was just going to compete right away with the world’s best. I didn’t manage myself well … didn’t look after myself. I didn’t watch my diet and ate a lot of junk, because what [else] can you do on a budget of $700 a month? I graduated on time with an English degree, but I wasn’t really prepared to do anything with it. I didn’t get around to any of that because I just assumed there’d be a career there for me as a runner after college.”
There wasn’t. After graduation, Woods managed a running-shoe store in Ottawa, as if he needed the further haunting of a wall full of New Balance and Brooks products. “I’d overhear people talk, ‘He used to be a good runner.’ Like I needed any reminders,” he says. He worked in a bank for a stretch, an especially bad fit. “I’m not good with numbers,” he says, something that probably should’ve been sorted out in the job interview.
Whatever hope he held for a comeback ended with a 10k road race in 2012, a run that again became a limp. Dread became grim acceptance: If he raced again, the outcome would be the same. The only question was whether or not his injury would require surgery. His involuntary entry into the real world seemed to break Woods. “My entire ID was wrapped up in being a runner,” he says. “Many nights I’d just lay in my bed, staring at ceiling, wondering where I went wrong.”
Embarrassment became his default mood and, all these years after, he sounds not just thankful that his wife, Elly, hung in but amazed that she did. “There was a stretch or two when I didn’t bring a lot to the table,” he says.
In and around these dark days, Woods’s father bought a bicycle and started riding for exercise. When his father dropped a few pounds and began to express his pleasure in getting out on the road, the light bulb flickered. “That really was the spur for me,” Woods says. “I’d always enjoyed riding a bike when I was young, just to get around, and I had been on a stationary bike when I was rehabbing. That really was the extent of my experience.
“I got a bike and it was super cathartic. Running had become this thing where I was no longer enjoying it because I got hurt every time, whereas when I got on the bike, I was enjoying myself. I was able to push myself and challenge myself like I had in running but without the repercussions.”
He also found pleasure in the community of bikers, particularly with a group at a shop called The Cyclery on Bank Street. “He knew one of our mechanics and just showed up with a bike he borrowed his dad,” says Vince Caceres, owner of The Cyclery. “He told us that he wanted to come out with us, doing recovery from a running injury. The initial ride was 45 kilometres, maybe 50 K — from a cycling viewpoint, not super long, but it was pretty hilly. Right away, we all could see the guy was very strong, especially for having no sort of cycling background. He didn’t know what he was doing — you wouldn’t expect to right off the gun — but he had no problems staying with us. We encouraged him to come out with us and he was immediately into it — super competitive but also willing to learn from any one of us. We started a racing team and he fell right in.”
As he began to train and race, Woods was able to quickly determine his strengths and weaknesses, what was baked in his cake by all his years as an elite middle-distance man. “Being a light runner gave me a huge advantage on the climbs immediately, but I did struggle on some of the flatter races,” he says. “Really, I was just learning to ride and learning there was a lot more to it than cardio or aerobic stuff — how to manage yourself in a crowd of bikes, race strategy. Still, in the back of my mind, I had this idea that I can do this — I was elite in track, I can be elite in cycling — even if it hadn’t been done before. I knew I could go somewhere with this.”
I n track and field, there’s no shortage of crossovers, though it’s almost entirely sprinters and hurdlers becoming NFL wideouts and halfbacks. (Michael Carter was an Olympic medallist as a shot putter, before winning championships with the 49ers as a defensive tackle.) For middle- and long-distance runners, though, it seems like their gifts and physiology are not transferrable to other sports — no elite middle-distance runner has played in the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Final, the Stanley Cup or the World Cup. It just makes Michael Woods riding in a couple of Olympic Games and in the Tour de France all the more remarkable. It’s frequently noted that Woods is the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile and race in the Tour de France. But according to the latest, if unofficial, tally from Track and Field News, 1,663 men have run a sub-four mile and with something more than cursory survey of the names, none but Woods ever established himself in the international elite of another sport. “The only one I can think of is Paul McMullen, a miler from Michigan. He tried cycling after his [track] career but it was mostly as recreational,” says Sullivan. Based on history it would seem an utterly hare-brained leap of faith to have projected Woods as a world-beater in cycling, but those who worked with him knew he had uncanny physical tools and a matching attitude.
Saldanha gleaned from the workout in Sutton what Woods knew, or at least intuited, from his early races on the Ottawa scene: He could be a competitive racer and was a truly gifted puncheur, a climber. On steep terrain he was a “natural,” but really, that doesn’t give him his due for the years he put in as a runner. When it’s suggested to Saldanha that Woods brought with him a professional athlete’s mindset and organization from track to the bike, the coach pushes back. “Actually, Mike had to learn how to be a professional,” he says. “He’d been a great track athlete but wasn’t professional about it, at least not before his injuries — not as professional as a racing team would expect him to be.”
Woods understood there’d be a learning curve, steep even for a puncheur, but he was at this stage an eager and receptive student. “I had already started my own coaching business [for marathon runners] since I had stopped competing and really started to appreciate the value and importance of coaching. I had a better understanding of what I needed and that made me not just a better athlete, but an easier athlete to work with for a coach. I had a better perspective. When you’re young, you think you know everything, but when you’re older, you realize you know nothing. Because I was older, I realized that I could learn from a lot of people, even those who were much younger than me. I’ve benefited from the ability to not have a big ego.”
He didn’t have a big ego but he did understand something about getting attention. On his honeymoon in Hawaii in December 2013, Woods set a record on the Haleakala Volcano, which is billed as the longest paved climb in the world. Starting in the tropical heat at sea level, Woods climbed 3,045 metres to the snow-covered summit. His time for the 56.9 kilometres was 2:32:24, 27 seconds faster than the previous record set by then-Garmin Sharp pro and fellow Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, who trained there and effectively had the advantage of local knowledge. That made a lot of cycling experts take notice of the previously unknown rider out of Ottawa.
Though he signed on with Cannondale, a Colorado-based professional team in 2015, Woods had his sights set almost exclusively on an event that carried over from his days as a runner. “The pros look to the Tour de France, but for me starting out [in cycling] I wanted to go to the Olympics,” he says. “Making it to the Olympics was the be-all-and-end-all since I was kid. When I made it to the 2016 Games in Rio, it was like a dream.”
The Rio course seemed to suit Woods — a gruelling 242 kilometres that favoured climbers — but he finished 20 minutes back of the winner Greg Van Avermaet of Belgium, in a pack of 18 riders. After the Games, Woods recalibrated his goals, as if he had dispensed with the ambitions leftover from his track career. “I realized that making the Olympics was setting that bar too low, I need to reset,” he says. “This had been a goal but getting there wasn’t the end. There was more that I could do.”
Though his career can be measured by incremental improvements, race by race, what likely rates as his breakthrough came the following season at the Vuelta a España, where he finished seventh in a field of 158 riders that included many who had raced in Rio. Then, in the spring of 2018, he was runner-up in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the world’s oldest one-day Classic race, one of the top five events on the professional cycling calendar. Even Woods seemed shocked by the result. “I’m now accruing enough experience that I understand how that course works, and I just had a good day,” he said post-race. “It was a real out-of-body experience. I started this only a few years back, and when I first started, I was riding the trainer and just watching races like this on the TV and dreaming of being in these positions.”
That fall, he proved the podium was no one-off with a third-place finish in the UCI Road World Championships.
The next year, Woods made his debut at the Tour de France, at age 32 one of the oldest riders in the 2019 field, ten years older than the eventual winner, Egan Bernal of Colombia. Despite impressive results elsewhere, Woods’s experiences with cycling’s most fabled event have been star-crossed and painful. In that first Tour de France, he was in ninth place in the general classification through eight stages but crashed three times over the next week, continuing to race the day after breaking two ribs. In 2020, with the schedule of the cycling season disrupted and the Tour postponed until August, Woods’s then-team (Cannondale was rebranded as EF Education–EasyPost) unexpectedly dropped him from its lineup mere weeks before the race — a decision that puzzled insiders.
Then last summer, having signed with the Israel Start-Up Nation team (now known as Israel-Premier Tech), Woods was in great form and moved into the lead for King of the Mountains honours after Stage 14. A later crash, however, again cost him any shot at the KOTM and a high finish in the general classification, so he withdrew and flew to Tokyo to recover — a bad case of road rash had him on a round of antibiotics — and focus on the Olympic road race.
Woods’s experience of the Games during a pandemic wasn’t the stuff he had dreamed of as a kid — the road racers were kept in isolation as a precaution, far from the Olympic Village. “It was a different experience [than Rio],” he says. “It felt just another bicycle race.”
The environment might have been a disappointment but the race was a marathon epic. The course was brutal and race-day temperatures approached 30 degrees — a full third of the 130 riders would have to drop out. Richard Carapaz, the Ecuadorian who finished third in the Tour de France, broke away and won the race by more than a minute, but Woods kept himself in a tightly bunched pack of eight riders shoulder-to-shoulder on the final straightaway chasing the silver and bronze medals. Woods wound up in fifth place, missing the podium by a bike length after 234 kilometres, which included a nervous minute or so while he changed a shoe without dismounting, pedalling with one leg and contorting over his crossbar. “Crisis management, it’s all part of the game,” he says. “You have to be able to compartmentalize.”
That’s easy to say in retrospect. Of course, a mid-race change of footwear seems like a trifle considering Elly was expecting the birth of their second child at about the time of the race — and their firstborn was still in diapers. Further complicating the picture: Elly was at their home in Andorra, the tiny mountainous principality between France and Spain where many Canadian, American and Australian riders decamp for training. “One of the reasons we moved there is because it’s easy to get to races practically anywhere in Europe, but getting there from Japan had its challenges,” Woods says. Though luck hadn’t favoured him a few times over his career, this time the stars did align. Woods made it home in time, barely, for the big event.
What a young Michael Woods lacked in patience and perspective, he has in abundance at 35. “I’ve had other life experiences whereas a lot of racers on the tour have never worked a full-time job away from the sport,” he says. “Some younger guys burn out at the age I was when I came on the tour. I’m thankful for what’s really a second chance to be a professional athlete.”
Ultimately, cycling might not have been the fall-back but rather the sport to which he was better suited in the first place, not just physically but emotionally. “I’m not nearly as nervous before cycling races as I was on the track — I don’t miss that from running. In cycling it’s just such a slow burn. The intensity is much more diminished because of the duration. On the track you can’t make a mistake — if you’re boxed in in an 800 or 1500, you’re in trouble. [In cycling] you’re making mistakes all the time. You’ve got time to adjust and recover. I guess you could get boxed on the road towards the finish line of a cycling stage, but you’ve had all day to address that. The sport does mellow your nerves about performance. It’s not a pressure cooker [like track was] for me.
“[Cycling] also opened my eyes to a style of training that I hadn’t done before,” he continues. “There’s a real culture around stopping at a cafe for a coffee midway through [a training ride] and not really caring about the exact distance or the exact pace. It’s really just more of the adventure of it.”
That sense of adventure carried over to his preparation and pre-race management for this summer’s Tour de France. “I don’t look at the stages for the Tour until I’m doing a reconnaissance of the stage a week before the actual race,” he said in May. “There are so many races on the calendar. I don’t like to get too far ahead of myself. I just like kind of focusing on what’s immediately ahead.”
The first two weeks of the Tour challenged Woods in ways he could have anticipated but not prepared for. Staying upright and conserving himself for the later climbing stages were his priorities, but as has been his history in the classic, Woods took a bad fall that impacted his form. Early in Stage 9, a 193-kilometre run from Aigle to Châtel – Les Portes du Soleil, Woods went down in traffic and came up with something worse than road rash on his glute. Riding hurt, he finished 131st in a large group of riders 27:35 behind the first man across the line, Bob Jungels of Luxembourg. A week later, Woods was still feeling the effects. “[I’m] still not back to where I was before crashing,” he told Cyclingnews. “I’m suffering, just coming back from the crash. I feel better every day but it’s been a struggle.”
Nonetheless, with the Tour entering three climbing stages in the Pyrenees, he has set his sights on a stage win — not King of the Mountains but something more than a consolation prize. And what was a struggle became a breakthrough on Stage 16, the hilly 178.5 kilometres from Carcassonne to Foix. His Israel-Premier Tech teammate Hugo Houle captured the headlines with the stage, the first Canadian to earn such a victory since Steve Bauer won the opening stage of the 1988 Tour. Houle finished 1:10 ahead of France’s Valentin Madouas and Woods in third, a result that bodes well for the coming days.
Whatever the outcomes of the last stages of the Tour, Woods also has other objectives this season, first and most notably the Vuelta a Espana in August. Not that he’s placing any pressure on himself — every stage of every race will be timed, of course, but he doesn’t believe he’s on the clock career-wise. He says he plans to race at least until 2026 and believes that he can compete well into his 40s, rare but not altogether unprecedented. The oldest rider in last year’s Tour de France, Alejandro Valverde, was 41 years old. “For as long as I can compete, I’m going to train and race and enjoy it all,” he says.
Which is to say, Michael Woods will climb and chase, like he did in that workout in Quebec, except that his determination will not be born of desperation but joy.