Michael Woods on athletics, impostor syndrome and mission carbon zero

“Coffee?” 

Michael Woods turns on the machine and I utter an involuntary “Wow!” at the view from his living room: a towering mountain carpeted with spruce trees. It is the last word in wallpaper. In the far distance you can just make out a ski lift. “That’s the ski resort at Grandvalira,” he says, pouring the coffee as the ski lift disappears into the green that turns to white in winter up here in Andorra. Perhaps reflecting on the landscape, he adds: “I love cycling. I love racing. I love riding my bike. But there are days when I really miss running, just how simple it is. Like yesterday, for example, I threw my shoes on for a 30-minute run and it was lovely. So simple. It’s easy to do.”

Woods is enjoying a few rare, quiet days at home before the final chunk of racing of 2021. The TV, with the sound muted, is showing a repeat of one of the stages at the Vuelta a España, a race he missed this year for the simple reason that sits in his lap as we speak: his son Willy, who is a few weeks old. “I think especially the first few months are very, very important, especially with our second child. And like, we’re not in Canada, so we don’t have parents here to help out. It’s just easier for my wife if I can be around more. The birth was a week premature, so when I got back from the Olympics, I went straight to the delivery. I didn’t even do it on purpose,” he says with a smile. “I’ve been really lucky to have been on teams that are really supportive [with family matters]. I was very close to missing his birth because I was at Tokyo – and Tokyo really was the only time I’d be willing to miss my child’s birth. I love the Olympics.” 

It is a disarming confession, backed up by his enthusiastic Tweeting about the Canadian delegation’s performance this summer, especially in track and field. (His own fifth place finish in the road race was worth writing home about). Athletics was a big part of his development into a world-class sportsman: Woods was a middle-distance runner before he was a cyclist, and nearly qualified for the Olympics, although a career-ending foot injury put paid to that particular dream. He discovered cycling during the recovery process, and in 2011, at the age of 24, he decided to switch sports for good. It all happened so fast, that when he signed for his first team in 2012, he had to wean himself off pounding the streets because of the presumed incompatibility between cycling and running. However, he has never stopped feeling like a runner or lost his love of athletics. When he took part in his first Tour de France in the colours of Education First in 2019, the specialist running media still wanted to interview him about the unprecedented participation of a former high-level middle-distance athlete like him in the world’s biggest bike race. But it is only now, as a 35-year-old in the final phase of his sporting career, that he has found a hard-won balance between his two passions. 

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“I went for a run the day before the Tour of the Alps [Maritimes et du Var]. I didn’t tell anybody, because I didn’t want anyone to find out, not even my roommate, Sep Vanmarcke. I snuck out, went for my run, came back, and he was still asleep. No one on the team knew, and I wanted to keep it that way, because I didn’t want to go and do my first race with the team, have a bad performance, and then have them say, ‘Oh, it’s because you went for a run.’ But after I won the second stage, I told them what I did. So now, because I did that, it’s okay. I think everyone on the team is very accepting of me running.”

Even so, Woods knows that his physical make-up is far from typical. “For sure, my body’s used to it, but some of the best riders in the world run. Like Primoz Roglič: he told me he runs on a quite regular basis. Same with Wout van Aert. So I don’t think it’s a disadvantage to run at all. If anything, I think it’s much better for you to be running. I think as pro cyclists, we spend way too little time impacting our bodies. The body needs it.” Getting into his stride, he continues: “If you’re always on the bike, you’re actually only doing a really small range of motion. You’re not really impacting your body at all. I’ve heard from a number of people that a lot of pro cyclists will end up with bone density issues, because they’re just never impacting the body. They’re never running or walking.” 

Riders today forget that, before the advent of the mobile phone, their predecessors would take after-dinner walks on race days, or head into the stage town to look for a souvenir.

“Over the course of a Grand Tour, I’m walking five kilometres. Maybe. Over the course of a month – only five K. That’s like, to the team bus, back from the bus. That’s it. And that’s not healthy,” he says, sealing his argument by paraphrasing Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University: “Humans evolved to run through persistence hunting. And so, like, you look at the body and it’s made to run long distances.“

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Woods started running and competing in his early teens. Twenty years later, he remains both a passionate sportsman and a student of his profession. “I was talking to [team-mate] Alex Dowsett about this a few days ago. He lives literally just above me and he understands the sport of cycling so well, and he’s such a nerd when it comes to aerodynamics and positioning. I was like that with running. I lived and breathed it when I started. I fell in love with it when I was in those formative years, when you’re like 13, 14, 15, 16, when, if you have a passion for something, you completely immerse yourself in it. I completely immersed myself in everything running, studying the sport, learning about its history, and training. And, yes, it’s my first love. I’ll always love it.” 

Woods plans to continue with athletics projects when he hangs up his bike. In 2014, he founded an athletics coaching company called Mile2Marathon, with marathon runner Dylan Wykes, and the project is going from strength to strength. “I think it’s something that I’ll transition to after cycling and that’s why I’m running now. I love it and I want to stay involved in it.” 

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Loss and limits

Woods gets up to warm a bottle and seems to be enjoying watching his team-mates at the Vuelta from the corner of his eye. He is strikingly frank, perhaps because in recent years he has been through moments that have forced him to rethink his perspective on life: the loss of his first child, Hunter, a few weeks before he was due in 2018; a broken femur at Paris-Nice in 2020; a period of recovery that coincided with the Covid crisis.  

“Nothing happens in isolation,” he muses. “The pandemic, for sure, impacted how I live and how I think. Having kids changed that, too. But, yeah, especially ’cause I broke my femur right before the pandemic, my perspective on cycling changed a lot, too. Again, I was less worried about my position in cycling, so, coming out of it, I was less worried about what other people thought of me. After breaking my femur, I really thought, maybe I would do only one more year, if that. Maybe I’d retire. So when you have that, it’s liberating. You kind of stop caring what other people think and you just do what you think is right.”

2018 was decisive for Woods, the year he achieved his best results: the Balcón de Bizkaia stage victory at the Vuelta, second place in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a bronze medal at the Innsbruck World Championships. But it was also the year he and his wife, Elly, lost their first child. 

“It was an incredible year in a lot of ways. I started to really prove myself as a cyclist. And I think if it wasn’t for losing Hunter, I don’t think I’d be as good of a cyclist as I am now, because he really did change my perspective. Losing him gave me more motivation in life. My wife and I had some really great times together in the weeks after we lost him, where we just talked a lot and spent a lot of time together and we made this commitment to ourselves that whatever we were doing, we’d do it to its best because we have this privilege of living, you know? He didn’t have that.

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“And so I invested in myself fully and trained harder than I’ve ever trained before and kind of recalibrated my limits. Because I trained so hard, I was able to reach a new level and then I was able to get these results at these races and then I was able to realise that, ‘oh, okay, I can handle that.’ And so, the next year, when I trained, I realised I could train as hard as I trained in the past, and it gave me that level. I was able to do it and it became less difficult, because I knew I could handle it. Whereas before, fear is often what holds you back, I was always afraid of pushing too hard, or getting sick. And gaining those results gave me a lot of confidence and the peloton made me realise, okay, maybe I do belong, because I think prior to those results, I did feel a lot like an impostor, I didn’t feel like I necessarily belonged in the peloton. Because I started the sport so late and I didn’t grow up around it.

“When I first started in 2016, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea why we were riding hard. I had no idea about anything. If the directors were calling a meeting and they were saying this team was gonna ride on the front, I just had no perspective, no understanding of the sport. And so I particularly needed the Grand Tours, because it’s high level racing day in, day out, and you finally start to learn. After finishing my fourth Grand Tour [in 2018], I finally felt like I belonged here.”

Three years on, the end of his cycling career is not so far away. Asked about what he hopes to achieve before he gets there, he does not hesitate. “I would like to get a medal at the Olympics, so I will surely be active until Paris 2024. I would like to be the first Canadian to win a Monument, that’s my biggest goal. And I would also love to get the King of the Mountains at the Tour. I was in contention this year and I realised how special that jersey is.

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Mission Carbon Zero

During the pandemic, other concerns dawned in the Woods household, among them, wanting to try to reduce their carbon footprint in order to protect the environment. He made it official by issuing a statement on his website last March, right before his first WorldTour race of the year. “I realised that the time had come to review my habits and my way of life to see what things I could change,” he says. He started by driving as little as possible, reducing his meat consumption, not buying single-use plastic items and offsetting his carbon emissions by donating to projects that contribute to its reduction.

“I think, right now it’s actually going well. I’m really happy with what’s come out of it so far. My first ambition with it was to try to offset my impact and then see what me doing this could inspire and get momentum towards. And so far it’s been great. I’ve had other riders talk to me about what they want to do: Robert Gesink, for example, who’s putting solar panels in his house and has got an electric car. But also my team has made an announcement that they’re moving their entire fleet of vehicles to hybrid, hybrid plug-in, or electric for next season. And that was partially because of my influence and talking with them. So that’s been really exciting to see. It’s opened my eyes even more to how much I do impact the planet. But especially when you read the UN report that came out recently, about where climate change is going, I shouldn’t be celebrated for doing this. This should be the norm.”

Even so, the reality is that the professional peloton is still a long way from facing its environmental responsibilities. With hundreds of people travelling by plane around the world to race, dozens of motor vehicles accompanying the peloton and promotional tools like the Tour de France publicity caravan filling the gutters with plastic trash, professional cycling is the very opposite of a sport that protects the planet. “It’s a contradiction,” reflects the Canadian, “because we should be an example, as opposed to this big, big polluter – because we are a big polluter.” 

That said, the experiences of the last few months have given Woods a new insight into what change he can achieve in the world as a cyclist, although he recognises that he is in an exceptional position because of his age. “I’m a bit older. I’m now more comfortable with who I am and where I am in cycling. There’s no security or stability in pro cycling, so a lot of riders are just focused on their next race, and even the teams don’t have as much time to think about things to do to improve our impact on the environment. Instead it’s like, how can we pay the bills for next month? That’s why it would be nice to see some of the more stable teams, the ones signing guys for, like, five years, to start making these kinds of moves as well.”

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Woods feels it’s incumbent on him to use the public profile that cycling has given him to help. “If I went completely carbon neutral, if I was completely environmentally friendly right now, I would not be a pro cyclist. I would go and live on a farm and live in Canada, somewhere off the grid, you know? And in some ways, that’d be great. But that would not give me a platform to make any change. And, although I don’t have a huge platform, if I can inspire just a couple more people to change their habits, that’s a huge success for me.”

The hardest part, he says, has been reducing his meat consumption during races, or at least trying to ensure that it is sourced from local producers. Turning vegan or vegetarian, he says, is not a complete solution. “If you’re vegan, chances are your impact on the environment is far less, but it’s still not necessarily true. Like, if you’re eating almonds from California, you know? That has a huge carbon footprint, so it’s more just being conscious of what you’re purchasing. We’re fortunate that, when we have our team chef, our meats are purchased from a local guy in Italy. But, when we’re at the hotels, you’re at the mercy of what the hotel’s making. They often have a good vegetarian alternative, but sometimes they don’t. And you do need protein in your diet, and there’s only so much homework I can do pre-race, you know? I have to focus on so many things to be a good cyclist, and I don’t need to be calling up hotels as well.” 

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At home in Andorra, he buys from a local cooperative. “We make sure that all of our food is organic, locally produced stuff, because that makes a big difference.” That said, he is acutely aware that real change takes place at higher levels: “Where you affect the most change is in voting and policy. And so, my big goal is to normalise environmentalism. If you can get people to think about that when they’re voting, that’s when you make the biggest differences, because then the policymakers are actually going to change things.” 

While we talk, Woods is bottle-feeding and burping his son. As the day’s escape is neutralised on the TV screen, he looks out at the wooded mountainside. “Once I started riding, I started travelling far greater distances and realising how beautiful Ottawa, where I lived, was, how beautiful the national parks are there and how lucky we are to live in a place that is so surrounded by nature,” he recalls. “And actually, cycling opened my eyes to a more enjoyable form of running, too. In running, there’s less of a culture of going out for a run, just enjoying where you are and maybe stopping for a coffee. In cycling, you do that all the time. Cycling kind of broke me out of this idea that I had to run a certain pace and a certain distance and it made me realise it’s more fun to go exploring. And so, actually through cycling, I found my love of trailing and that’s where you really get a nice connection with nature. It’s my favorite thing to do now. I don’t care about pace any more. I just go and run the trails.” 

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We turn back to the view of the mountains, and I ask if sport has helped him cope with some of the darker moments that life has thrown at him. “Yeah, for sure. I think, being a cyclist, you’re constantly being faced with obstacles, and so you have to get over those obstacles. Getting through a ride is not an easy task sometimes; you’re forcing yourself in uncomfortable positions and habituating yourself to that. Obviously, people endure far worse things in their life, but it just prepares you for those things better, because you’re habituated to them. It also desensitises you to risk. It makes you realise you can get through things a lot better. When you fall, you have to get up. Because what’s the alternative? That’s one of the best parts of cycling – it makes you stronger in some of those other moments in life.”