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Ottawa’s Mike Woods excited for first crack at historic Tour de France

Third-place winner Michael Woods from Canada gives a thumbs up after the men's road race at the Road Cycling World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria on Sept.30, 2018. Woods, in his first Tour, is aiming for a stage win. The 106th edition of the Tour opens Saturday in Brussels.
Third-place winner Michael Woods from Canada gives a thumbs up after the men's road race at the Road Cycling World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria on Sept.30, 2018. Woods, in his first Tour, is aiming for a stage win. The 106th edition of the Tour opens Saturday in Brussels. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP / Kerstin Joensson

Canadian Mike Woods remembers growing up watching the Tour de France. Now the 32-year-old from Ottawa wants to give viewers back home something to cheer about.

Woods, in his first Tour de France, is aiming for a stage win.

“When I was watching the Tour back home, I’d get super-excited when I’d see a Canadian in the field,” Woods said Friday. “I know that if I’m attacking and if I’m on camera in the front, I’m just going to get that much greater exposure to cycling in Canada, get more people excited about Canadians racing in the WorldTour.”

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On the eve of Saturday’s start, Woods says the feedback from back home has been “overwhelming.”

“We don’t have many Canadians in the (UCI) WorldTour but people still in Canada follow the Tour de France and when you have a Canadian in the field, they really gravitate towards that rider and want that rider to have success,” Woods said.

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“I’m really feeling that love and that support. For me it’s something I’m really enjoying and cherishing. I don’t see it as a source of pressure but more just something to be grateful for.”

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This is the fifth Grand Tour event for Woods, who has competed twice in both the Giro D’Italia and Spanish Vuelta.

The 106th edition of the Tour de France opens in Brussels to honour the 50th anniversary of the legendary Eddy Merckx’s first of five Tour victories.

Woods is riding for the American team EF Education First, a strong outfit whose Tour roster also includes Colombian Rigoberto Uran and American Tejay van Garderen.

Uran, 32, was second in the 2017 Tour and has been runner-up at the Giro twice. He also won silver in the road race at the 2012 Olympics. Van Garderen, 30, has twice finished fifth at the Tour.

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Uran already has 16 Grand Tour events under his belt, compared to 12 for van Garderen.

“With Rigoberto and Tejay, two super-experienced general classification riders of the Tour, it takes a lot of pressure off of me,” said Woods. “I’m here to learn a bit from them but also try and help them out as we get to the later stages of the race.

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“However, I’m also aiming to achieve some personal goals as well — one of those is to try and win a stage, particularly later on in the race.”

Woods is joined by fellow Canadian Hugo Houle, who rides for Kazakhstan’s Astana Pro Team. The 28-year-old from Sainte-Perpetue, Que., who won the individual time trial at the 2015 Pan American Games, is also competing in his first Tour de France after two runs in the Giro and one in the Vuelta.

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Woods recalled one of his first races was against Houle at the now-defunct OBC Grand Prix in Ottawa.

“We’ve done the Olympics together. He’s been very helpful for me, a good resource, and I hope I’ve been able to help him out a bit as well. He crashed at my place in Girona (Spain) at the start of the season.

“We’re just good buddies. And it’s going to be really fun doing our first Tour together — obviously on different teams but we’ll certainly, when things are calm, find the time to chat at the back of the peleton.”

In 2018, Woods won a stage in the Vuelta, was the first Canadian to climb the podium at the historic Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic and finished third at the world championship road race.

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READ MORE: Victory for Ottawa cyclist Michael Woods in 17th stage of Spanish Vuelta

The milestone Vuelta stage win, after a gruelling climb, was emotional — coming a few months after unborn son Hunter died suddenly at 37 weeks old.

When it comes to racing, Woods thrives under the most difficult of circumstances.

“I always say I’m really good at slow speeds,” he explained. “Like whenever the average speed of the race is diminished, I’m always good — not because we’re riding easy but because the terrain is just so hard that we’re going over these lumpy steep climbs that really kill our speed.”

A former elite distance runner at the University of Michigan, Woods switched to cycling due to a recurrent stress fracture in his foot. His last track comeback ended with another break in 2011.

He spent three years as a pro on the North American circuit before earning a WorldTour contract following a breakthrough second-place finish at the 2015 Tour of Utah.

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Like most riders, he has endured his share of injuries and ailments.

Last month, he was doing well at the Criterium du Dauphine but eventually had to withdraw after coming down with a gastro-intestinal problem.

In 2016, he crashed at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, breaking his hand in three places and injuring his back. He still competed in the Olympic road race in Rio, finishing 55th despite throwing up in mid-competition.

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An early-season bout of rotavirus — he thinks it was a buffet in Dubai at the Tour of Abu Dhabi — sent Woods to hospital in early 2018.

The Tour de France covers 3,460 kilometres and wraps up July 28 in Paris.