Trading spikes for spokes, Michael Woods finds a career in professional cycling

Wednesday, June 20, 2018 - 12:25pm

Former Michigan track and field athlete Michael Woods found a career as a professional cyclist

Former Michigan track and field athlete Michael Woods found a career as a professional cyclist Buy this photo
Courtesy of Bettini Photo / Cycling News

Closing out the final kilometers of the race, professional cyclist Michael Woods was in a solid position. Positioned among the front group, he knew he’d finish well.

And that’s exactly what he did. Woods finished in second place at the 2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in Belgium, a feat he could only dream of a few years prior.

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Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, Woods frequently rode his bike—but only for fun. He’d head to the park to attempt jumps and other tricks, but beyond that, his focus was running. And he was quite good at it. Among his many achievements as a runner, he won gold in the 1500-meter race at the 2005 Pan American Junior Championships and even ran a sub-four-minute mile (3:57.48) that same year.

With his success, colleges started opening their doors to him. Michigan stood out the most because it was a good school for distance running, but also because of another Canadian runner who had raced for the Wolverines — Kevin Sullivan, the current head coach of the Michigan men’s cross country team as well as an assistant coach for track and field.

“My hero as a kid was Kevin Sullivan who’s now the coach. He was my hero when I was starting in running and he went to Michigan,” Woods said. “Basically, in Canada, every high school distance runner would talk about how amazing the University of Michigan was. So, it was definitely my first choice. And then also, you know, I wasn’t a terrible student as well so Michigan really stood out in that sense as well.”

So, Woods followed in Sullivan’s footsteps and headed to Michigan on a full scholarship to run both cross country and track.

But his career as a runner took a turn for the worst around 2006 when he started getting stress fractures in his left foot. Woods underwent two surgeries and had pins placed in his foot but still failed to recover completely, effectively ending his career as a Wolverine.

“I just tried coming back too fast. Constantly trying to get back into running but never really was able to just because of this injury,” Woods said. “It was not gradual at all. I continuously tried to come back.”

In 2008, Woods graduated with a degree in English. He kept at his running career but eventually, the clock ran out. Fall of 2011, while racing in a 10k road race, he sustained yet another injury and knew it was time to say goodbye to the sport.

Though his career as a runner was over, his life as an athlete was far from it.

Just as he always ridden a bike in his childhood, Woods did so in college too. He lived near Yost Ice Arena and would hop on his bike to get to class. After graduating and while pursuing professional running but battling injuries, he rode his father’s bike to stay fit.

Woods notes 2012 as a major turning point in his athletic career. He’d been away from running for some time and was working. His then-girlfriend — and current wife — suggested that he put all his energy into cycling.

“She saw my potential,” Woods said. “She saw me when I was running at my best and knew what I was capable of as an athlete. She really believed in me and she told me ‘I think you should make a real focus at cycling and see where you can take it.’ So I quit my job, and she was amazing and helped support me when I first started out. I started racing that year and started getting results.”

When he took up cycling, his main goal was to make the Olympics — a goal he then achieved in 2016.

“I just feel so lucky to have been able to go and represent Canada,” Woods said, “and just be at the Olympics.”

Woods proudly races for the professional team EF Education First–Drapac p/b Cannondale, an American team based out of Boulder, Co. that also has a hub in Girona, Spain.

“The team I’m on right now really stood out because it’s taken such a huge anti-doping stance,” Woods said. “We’re not a win-at-all-costs team. Obviously, we want to try and win — we want to do well — but riders on this team are unique characters. A lot of the guys on our team are interesting people and we’re well known for being that team that’s focused on doing things the right way, making sure we’re not trying to stretch the rules or cheat.”

With his current team, he races on professional cycling’s biggest stage. He’s already competed in two out of the three Grand Tour events — twice at the Giro d'Italia and once at the Vuelta a España where he finished in seventh out of 158 riders in 2017 — a tremendous accomplishment considering he hasn’t been cycling for that long.

“Because I ruined one athletic career already I really feel lucky to be doing this professionally and getting paid to do this,” Woods said. “And the fact that I didn’t start that long ago, I really appreciate how big these races are because I was just a fan of the sport before. I have quite a few pinch-myself moments when I’m in these big races and there are people running beside me up a climb and yelling and screaming my name.”

Woods has yet to race the Tour de France, but plans to do so in the future. So far, he’s been focused on the other two Grand Tour events, including the Giro d'Italia where he was the team leader this year.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t done the Tour yet,” Woods said. “The Vuelta and the Giro are huge races, but the one problem with those races is they’re not as well-known as the Tour. I really wanna do the Tour because I’m tired of explaining to somebody who doesn’t really know cycling that when they ask me, ‘Have you done the Tour?’ I have to respond, ‘Oh no, I haven’t done the Tour. But I’ve done the Italian and the Spanish version.’”

Woods ranks his second-place finish at this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège as his best athletic achievement. The event is the world’s oldest one-day Classic race and is regarded as one of the five monuments of professional cycling.

“I love that race. I’m now accruing enough experience that I understand how that course works, and I just had a good day,” Woods said. “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.”

Since taking up cycling, Woods’ life has changed. For starters, he’s competing in a sport that — although it may seem to share many similarities with running — he believes is very different.

Woods admits he was unaware of the differences between the two sports when first making the transition.

“I thought, you know, because I was really good at running I’d also be good at cycling,” Woods said, “Just because I had this engine.”

Now, he believes that although aerobic capacity is vital in both sports, cycling is much more technical and tactical.

Woods often trains more than 30 hours a week — a schedule he says is much more time-consuming than running. Most of that training happens in Girona, Spain — the location of his team's training facilities. He also spends time each year in Andorra and back home in Ottawa.

His career involves a significant amount of travel, a part of his life he missed while facing injuries. Woods travelled all over the United States when running as a Wolverine, but stayed put when he took up a job between sports. Now, he’s glad to be back on the road — and on the plane.

“I certainly don’t take it for granted now. I really enjoy the adventure that I get to go on,” Woods said. “We get to go to really cool places, and even when I train, I get to see these amazing vistas and go down these really cool roads. I just feel really fortunate.”

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