The #GreenArgyle Vuelta a España squad closed out the final three-week Grand Tour with seventh overall and the polka dot King of the Mountains jersey.
Canadian Mike Woods rode what he described as “the best race of my life to date” to contend with the sport’s top general classification riders. En route to seventh overall, 8’27 down on 2017 Vuelta winner Chris Froome, Woods recorded four top ten stage results, including third place atop Cumbre del Sol.
“I think the biggest lesson learned here is that I’m able to ride with some of the best riders in the world,” said Woods. “Prior to this race, I thought I might have the legs. I was putting out numbers that showed I was capable of having a performance like this, but I didn’t yet have it between the ears. And now I do – and a lot of that has to do with the experience I’ve gained here and the good guidance the team has provided. I really found my mojo during this race.”
Woods arrived at the Vuelta harboring ambitions to win a stage. It was only after his performance during week one and his subsequent rise to eighth overall that the team fully committed to general classification ambitions.
“Until stage ten, we never mentioned the words ‘general classification’ to Mike,” explained sport director Juanma Garate. “We didn’t call him our leader. I didn’t forget him, but I wasn’t showing that we were taking care of him because I didn’t want to put that pressure on his shoulders from the first day. It was only after the uphill final on stage nine that we started talking about the GC.”
Alongside general classification ambitions with Woods, Cannondale-Drapac juggled the battle for the King of the Mountain jersey. Italian Davide Villella first pulled on the blue-and-white spotted jersey following stage three. He went on to wear the jersey all the way to Madrid.
“The biggest challenge was being in the breakaways as often as possible in the first week and the third week,” said Villella. “In the second week, when there were less points that I could take, I had to focus on recovering. It was really special to pull on the jersey for the first time in Andorra three weeks ago, and it was even more special to wear it in Madrid.”
“The first Monday of the race, Villella pulled on the jersey, and he kept it from then until the end,” said Garate. “I don’t know if that’s happened many times. The overall jersey, ok, but the KOM jersey from the first real climbing day all the way until the finish? That’s a big effort.
“After the first day, when we had the points, we planned everything,” Garate noted. “The strategy was after the first day with the jersey, we tried to get in breaks the next two days – which we did. We wanted to show the other teams that we were going to fight for the jersey, and when we got so many points, more than half the bunch was already out of the competition. The gap was too big.
“Then it was time to rest for almost one week,” Garate added. “The second week didn’t have many mountains. There were uphill finishes, but we couldn’t fight for those. We wanted points from mountains that came before the finish, and the third week was the best for that. There were lots of points, so we wanted to be in the break as often as possible. Villella fought hard again in week three, and in the end, the plan worked.”
While the achievements are noteworthy in their own right, the context in which they were pursued lends a better understanding of the challenges overcome.
Woods is only in his second year in the WorldTour. The 30-year-old came to the sport late following an elite running career derailed by injuries. He rode his first Grand Tour in May.
His support team consisted of four Grand Tour debutantes in Toms Skujins, Tom Scully, Will Clarke and Brendan Canty
“We came here with such an inexperienced team,” noted Garate “And all of them not only finished the race but contributed to the things we achieved. At the end, we had used every one of our riders completely.”
Then there was the bombshell dropped during the first weekend of the Vuelta. Eight days into the three-week long race, the Vuelta squad, like all Cannondale-Drapac riders and staff, received an email notifying them the team’s future was in doubt.
The following day, the team went out and rode the front for 160 kilometres before unleashing Woods, who climbed to third place.
“The day that stands out the most for me is stage nine,” said Woods. “Before the race, we had a long talk on the bus. We were all reeling from the bad news. We were distracted. Juanma stood up on the bus and gave a really emotional speech. He told us that he understood if we needed to seek results and focus on ourselves, individually. He gave us that option. And then he presented option two, that we work as a team and focus on our original goals.
“Every guy on that bus raised his hand for that second option,” Woods added. “Then we got off the bus and rode on the front all day. We proved that we belonged and that we weren’t going to go down without a fight. We raced like champions. I didn’t win, which would have been the perfect ending, but I had the best race of my life up until that point to come away with third.
“There was a big collective emotional release after that,” Woods noted. “We could all feel a sense of pride within the group, and we got a lot of respect from the peloton. The way we rode allowed us to move forward with our heads high and with positive momentum we could draw from throughout the race.”
Good news followed exactly two weeks later when Slipstream Sports revealed a new naming partner in EF Education First. By then seventh overall and the polka dot jersey were all but secured.
“I’m really proud of how the riders, staff and everyone managed the sad news we had two weekends ago to end up where we are on this weekend,” said Garate. “What we did here and the way we did it, despite the extra mental challenges, says a lot about who we are as a team and how we work together.”
All photos: © BrakeThrough Media