Mike Woods was 25 years old when he decided, after years as a competitive runner, to give professional cycling a shot. His girlfriend asked him, Do you think you’ll ever make it to the Tour de France?
His response: “Yeah, probably.”
Seven years later, those expectations have become reality. Woods is one of two Canadians competing in the Tour de France, which kicks off in Belgium on Saturday.
The 32-year-old athlete spoke with CTVNews.ca on Friday from Brussels about how he went from being an outsider to one of the world’s best cyclists, his lingering feelings of being an “imposter,” and how the heartbreaking loss of his unborn son last year changed the way he sees everything.
Woods grew up in Ottawa, where he played hockey and, in high school, began taking track and field seriously. He was a talented runner and still holds the record for running the fastest mile on Canadian soil by a Canadian.
But things took a turn for the worse in college. Woods suffered several stress fractures linked to over-training and poor diet, and those injuries eventually forced him to give up the sport completely.
After hitting a low point, Woods started cycling for stress relief and to help his recovery. But he quickly fell in love with the sport, and decided -- midway through his twenties -- to go pro.
“I was completely ignorant to how hard it would be. When I first started cycling I knew nothing about cycling. I assumed that because I was a good runner, those skills would directly translate to cycling,” he said.
“Ultimately I was able to do this, but now, reflecting back on how far I had to go to get here and knowing what I know now, there is no way I would’ve tried to make the Tour from the state I was in at the time.”
Woods stuck to his rigorous training schedule, and it didn’t take long before it paid off. He established himself as a talented “climber” -- a cyclist particularly skilled on hills and mountains. In 2015, he captured his first professional win at the Tour of Utah when he won the fifth stage of the race.
Last September, Woods came third at the road race world championships in Austria, becoming the first Canadian cyclist to reach a road race podium in 34 years.
Woods speaks confidently about his record on the road and is frank about the hard work it took to get there. But sometimes, when he thinks about how long he’s been cycling compared to his competitors, he feels a pang of imposter syndrome.
“And so even though now I feel comfortable within the group, comfortable within the peloton, and experienced, I still know that I’m lacking that base of knowledge that you can only really develop when you’re in your very formative years. And because of that, I still feel like a bit of an outsider.”
OVERCOMING PERSONAL LOSS
But the biggest challenge of Woods’ life came last year, on June 5, when his unborn son Hunter died at 37 weeks old. The loss made Woods reconsider his role in sports.
“As athletes in particular, you live such a selfish lifestyle and I think my wife and I were both ready to live for something other than ourselves. We had that for a very, very brief moment and to have it taken away was really, really tough. It’s something that we still struggle with. We still have a good cry every once in a while.”
A few months after Hunter’s death, Woods competed at the Vuelta, a race in Spain. In the gruelling final moments of the race’s 17th stage, Woods’ coach told him to focus on his family. Woods won the stage and later dedicated the victory to his son.
Woods said that Hunter will be on his mind throughout the Tour de France.
“Certainly. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Hunter and that time that my wife and I went through,” he said.
On a larger scale, Woods said that losing his son pushed him to get the most out of life – and to fight even harder to make it to the Tour de France.
“After he passed away, my wife and I made a commitment to each other to really try and think about how best we can honour him and we felt the best way to honour him would be to just live our lives to the fullest. He never had a chance to live,” he said.
“We’ve been living an incredible life this last year and a part of that for me is excelling on the bike and making the most of this crazy life that I live. The Tour is certainly an extension of that.”
THE SECRET TO SUCCESS
Woods will don a bright-pink kit Saturday as he races alongside seven other teammates, including Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran, who came second in the Tour de France in 2017, and American Tejay Van Garderen, who recently finished second at the Criterium du Dauphine.
In his wildest dreams, Woods hopes that one of his teammates will win the race, and that he can capture a stage win or two along the way.
“I’m hoping to support them throughout the race but also target individual stages,” he said.
All the while, Woods said he’s basking in the excitement of competing in the world’s most celebrated bike race. He described his mindset going into Saturday as “just pretty relaxed.”
As for the secret to his later-in-life success, Woods offered a piece of advice for anyone considering pursuing a new goal.
“It doesn’t matter what discipline, whether that’s something at work or school or another sport, I think the key to success isn’t necessarily seeking success, but finding what you enjoy about the pursuit of that success and pursuing that.”