High expectations for Canadian cyclist Michael Woods at Tokyo Olympics

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Michael Woods has come a long way since the Rio Olympics.

His body battered and broken from several nasty crashes ahead of the 2016 Games, Woods finished 55th in the Rio road race. Woods, who threw up during the race, called the hilly 241.5-kilometre Olympic circuit "the hardest race of my life."

The 34-year-old from Ottawa crashed twice in the lead-up to the Rio Games, breaking his hand in three places at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and suffering a partially displaced fracture of his left femur at the Tour of Poland. He still competed in an Olympic race that saw 79 competitors fail to finish with another two completing it over the time limit.

"My life goal at that time was to do the Olympics. And so come hell or high water, I was doing that race," Woods said in an interview. "After that race I realized how bad my body was. Yet I was still able to compete there.

"It made me realize it was time for me to kind of reset my goals. In many ways it was a career-defining moment for me because I was flying back (from Rio) and I had checked off the box of making the Olympics, which was my only real goal when I started cycling. And I felt like I had so much more to give in this sport. And I felt like I could go so much higher in the sport.

"And so instead of resting on having achieved that goal, I decided 'OK, this is time to reset my focus and set the bar higher.'"

Shawn Clarke, Cycling Canada's elite road manager, was in Rio as a spectator and watched Woods race.

"You could tell that he wasn't himself," he said. "Had he had the perfect run-up and good prep, I think we would have seen a much different race from him. I think it was pretty clear early on he wasn't the rider that he wanted to be on the day."

Woods gets another chance in the 234-kilometre Tokyo Olympic road race Saturday in Japan (starting 10 p.m. ET Friday) — the first day that medals are awarded in Tokyo. He will be racing alongside fellow Canadians Hugo Houle and Guillaume Boivin, who helped him to a 12th-place finish at the UCI Road World Championship in Imola, Italy, last September.

Houle, a respected domestique (support rider) with the Astana-Premier Tech team who finished 66th in the Tour de France, has high hopes for Woods in Tokyo.

"I think we have a real shot to win a medal with (him)," said Houle, a 30-year-old native of Sainte-Perpetue, Que. "So I want to be 100 per cent behind him. I think he deserves it and he's shown that he can be top-level like he did in Innsbruck jumping on the podium of the road race (winning bronze at the 2018 Road Cycling World Championship)."

But it is an elite field and some countries have qualified five riders to Canada's three.

Woods points at Belgium's Wout van Aert, Italy's Vincenzo Nibali, Denmark's Jacob Fuglsang and Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar (winner of the Tour de France) and Primoz Roglic as riders to watch.

"There are probably 15 guys that could be in medal contention in this field," he said.

Woods has built his season around the Tour de France and the Olympics.

Unlike the buildup to Rio, he managed to avoid major injury although he did leave the Tour early — after Stage 18 — after a crash. No longer in the hunt for the King of the Mountains classification and with the Tour taking place in cool conditions, he elected to fly to Japan a little early to get used to the heat and humidity.

"It's been a real nice season so far," said Woods, who rides for the Israel Start-Up Nation team. "And I think a lot of that has to do with just the great team I have, the teammates that I have and the staff behind me."

While competing in the demanding Tour ahead of Tokyo might seem insane to some, Woods says it's just right for him.

"I'm always at my best the week after a Grand Tour (event) … I get better over the course of a Grand Tour. In my previous team on EF (Pro Cycling) they used to call me Mr. Fourth Week. If a race went another week, I'd just be even better."

He said the only possible drawback is the time change. But he finished second in the Japan Cup on a shorter turnaround two years ago "and felt like I was the strongest climber in that race."

Woods did not compete in the Tour before Imola and felt he lacked some race fitness because of it, said Clarke.

Woods says the Tour helped take "a bit of the pressure off and the edge off" ahead of Tokyo.

"You just get into race mode. Instead of putting another race on a pedestal, you just treat it as another day at the office almost."

Much has changed since Rio. Woods is a father, with seven Grand Tour events now under his belt. He has endured success on the bike and tragedy off it.

In 2018, he dedicated his first Grand Tour stage win, at the Spanish Vuelta, to his stillborn son Hunter. In January 2020, Woods and wife Elly welcomed daughter Max (Maxine).

He is slated to leave immediately after the Olympic race for his home in Andorra because his wife is due to give birth.

A former elite distance runner, Woods switched to cycling after suffering a string of stress fractures.

"I think he's just one of those really special people who would have been successful with anything he did," said Clarke, citing Woods' work ethic, natural talent and ability to learn quickly. "It just happens to be cycling he's chosen."

Woods, a world-class climber with an attacking style of riding, likes the Olympic course, which features an elevation gain of 4,865 metres. The race takes place against the backdrop of Mount Fuji with the men climbing the lower slopes of Japan's highest mountain.

"The Mikuni Pass, which will likely be the defining climb of the race, really suits me. It's quite steep," said Woods. "It's going to be a hard man's race. I think it will be a good one for me."

Added Boivin: "It's a gruelling course … It's a very demanding course for climbers and that's why Mike is by far our best shot at a medal, because he's shown he's one of the best in the world in that kind of terrain."

The goal is to support Woods through the last climb of the day, to put him in a position to contend.

With heat and humidity expected to make for a tough day in the saddle, It could come down to the smallest things with Woods noting he cramped in the final sprint at Imola after missing one water bottle, which he believes may have affected the colour of his medal.

Clarke, an Ottawa native who makes his home in Gatineau, Que., also sees the Olympic course as a good fit.

"I don't think you could have built a race that suited Mike quite as well as this," said Clarke, whose partner Karol-Ann Canuel will be competing in the women's road race and time trial in Tokyo.

While some countries have qualified larger teams for the road race, Woods is happy to be riding with Houle and Boivin.

He calls Houle "one of the better domestiques in the world at the moment."

"It's unfortunate having to race against him sometimes because I see the work he does for his teammates and you wish you had him on your team," said Woods. "It's so nice when I get to do these global championships to have him there because he's so consistent.

"He's also a great person. He's funny and a good guy to have around."

Added Clarke: "There aren't many riders in the pro peloton as experienced to do the job that we need Hugo to do … He's extremely key to Mike's good ride in Tokyo."

Boivin, a 32-year-old from Montreal who finished 105th in the Tour, has been racing with Houle since they were 15. He counts Woods also as a good friend.

"We've got already good chemistry between the three of us," said Boivin, who rides with Woods at Israel Start-Up Nation. "And then a clear goal for the Games to try to go get a medal with Mike."

Woods won't get to hang out in the Olympic Village this time, an experience he said lived up to its billing in Rio. Part of the reason was he was there when the Games started.

"So I only saw optimism. Nobody had their dreams broken yet. You could feel this amazing energy in the Village."

This time, the Canadian riders are staying in a hotel in Gotemba, 100 kilometres southwest of Tokyo, to be near the course.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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