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Cannondale’s Woods makes big splash in WorldTour debut

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — From banking to the big leagues, Michael Woods has had an unconventional road into the WorldTour.

A former runner, the 29-year-old rookie burst into podium contention Thursday at the Santos Tour Down Under with a third-place ride over the Corkscrew climb when he dropped the top climbers in the peloton. The sun-blasted roads of Australia are a long way from working at a bank.

“I had several injuries, and I had to stop running. I spent four years, working in a bank, in a grocery store, in a bike shop, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” the Cannondale rider said. “This is a huge difference from working in a bank.”

Those banking skills might come in handy during Saturday’s decisive stage up Willunga Hill. After his thrilling ride Thursday put him one spot out of the top 3, his podium hopes took a blow in stage 4. Despite finishing in the bunch, he dipped to eighth overall at 32 seconds back after a gap opened up in the pack when a rider slipped out of his pedal.

Landing on the podium seems like a long-shot now in the tightly wound Tour Down Under, so Woods can only make the best of the situation and maximize the opportunity at Willunga Hill climb, the traditional king-maker at the Tour Down Under.

“I will have to rely upon my teammates to make sure I am in good position, and let my legs do the talking,” he said. “It’s a six-day stage race, every day you have different legs. I had good legs yesterday, and I had good legs today, and if I feel good tomorrow, I am going to have to play a tactical game and try and drop guys.”

After a spectacular WorldTour debut, Woods might be pinching himself. A year ago, he was on the U.S. domestic circuit, racing for Optum – Kelly Benefit Strategies and trying to make an impression. He certainly did that in 2015, winning three races — including a stage and second overall at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.

That opened the door to join Cannondale, and Woods is one of 11 new riders to join the team run by Jonathan Vaughters.

“Jonathan’s been a big supporter of mine for a long time,” Woods said. “Back in 2013, I managed to break Ryder Hesjedal’s record in the world’s longest climb in Hawaii, and since then, I’ve been on his radar. He was the first WorldTour team that approached me after the Tour of Utah, where I had success.”

After signing a two-year deal to join the new-look Cannondale squad, Woods isn’t waiting long to make an impression. He attacked in Thursday’s short by steep climb up Corkscrew, and only Sky’s Sergio Henao could stay with him.

“Last night, I was super-excited, I didn’t sleep as I normally do,” Woods said. “You’re getting all these messages from friends and that gets the heart-rate up a bit, but after today, I am settled down a bit and I am focused on the big day Saturday.”

Cannondale sport director Fabrizio Guidi said Woods is exceeding expectations in Australia.

“We believe in him, and we told him we would bring a squad to back him here,” Guidi said. “He was very strong up the Corkscrew. We hope it’s the same story on Willunga. It’s a perfect climb for him.”

Woods seems right at home in the WorldTour, but he doesn’t know how his schedule will shape up for the remainder of the season. The team wanted him to come to Australia for a baptism by fire.

“They really wanted me to race this one, and see how I adapted to the WorldTour. The goal was to knock this one out of the park,” he said. “This race is very similar to the U.S. domestic scene, shorter stages, wider roads, so that’s why they wanted me to race this one because the transition is much less intense, as opposed to going to Tour de Suisse, where it’s 200km long stages with much more narrow roads.”

No matter what happens over the weekend, it will take nothing away from what’s been a superb WorldTour debut. An injury stopped his promising athletics career — his specialty was the mile — but he picked up cycling thanks to his father. Once training rides became mini-races, Woods was hooked.

He didn’t turn pro until his mid-20s — quite late compared to the typical rider into the peloton. He’s quite a few years older than his fellow WorldTour rookies on Cannondale, but that only gives him an added sense of urgency and maturity.

“After working in the real world, it made me realize how lucky we are as athletes,” Woods said. “Sure, there are some hard moments, but I get to do what I love. And I feel very fortunate for that.”