INNSBRUCK, Austria – Michael Woods fed off the crowd’s energy in a big way Sunday at the men’s road race world championship.
Woods, a 31-year-old from Ottawa, won bronze to become the first Canadian in the top three at the event since Steve Bauer finished third in 1984.
“My ears were ringing because the people were so loud and I could hear their cow bells,” Woods said. “Even before the race, I told myself I’d try to get inspiration and energy from what the fans bring to the race. There were so many fans today.”
Alejandro Valverde of Spain won gold and Romain Bardet of France took silver.
It’s been an impressive year for Woods.
He won a stage of the Spanish Vuelta earlier this month, was second in a stage of the Giro d’Italia in May, and finished in second place at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege race in April.
A former elite distance runner at the University of Michigan, Woods switched to cycling due to a recurrent stress fracture in his foot.
“Coming from another sport, it’s been hard for me to believe that I could win when so (many) good riders are in the field but my stage victory at La Vuelta helped me boost my confidence,” Woods said. “Now I’m starting to believe in myself.”
Sunday’s win was Valverde’s seventh time on the podium, but first time winning gold.
The Spanish rider sprinted to the world title after a grueling, mountainous race of 6 hours, 46 minutes through the Austrian Alps, including a final climb with a maximum gradient of 28 per cent.
Valverde led a group of four in the final kilometre, and he just remained ahead of Bardet and Woods in the sprint. Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands placed fourth.
The victory came 15 years after Valverde won silver in Hamilton, Ont., a feat he repeated in 2005 in Madrid. He also came third four times, in 2006 and three years in a row from 2012-14.
“This is the greatest day of my career. It means everything to me to take this victory,” the 38-year-old Valverde said through an interpreter.
He became the first Spanish world champion since Oscar Freire won the title in 2004.
Valverde, who served a doping suspension earlier in his career, has won stages in all Grand Tours and was the overall winner of the Vuelta in 2009. Sunday’s title came a year after he suffered a fractured kneecap in a fall in the Tour de France, forcing him to end his 2017 season prematurely.
Valverde positioned himself for the win when he went ahead of the pack together with Bardet and Woods for the final five kilometres. While the trio built a lead of a half-minute, Dumoulin managed to catch up for the last 1,500 metres.
However, the Dutchman lacked the power to attack again, and Valverde held off challenges by Bardet and Woods to cross the line first.
Peter Sagan had his three-year winning streak snapped when he quit the race with 90 kilometres left. The Slovakian sprint specialist struggled on the 258-kilometre course, which included 4,681 metres of climbing and was regarded as one of the toughest world championship courses in decades.
Many of the pre-race favourites had problems, while Warren Barguil of France and Primoz Roglic of Slovenia were among the contenders slowed by crashes.
A group of 11 riders broke away in the opening kilometres, and as there were no title favourites among them, the peloton wasn’t bothered about chasing them for most of the race.
The group was allowed to build a lead of up to 19 minutes, but was gradually reduced as more and more riders couldn’t keep up with its pace.
It left Kasper Asgreen of Denmark and Vegard Stake Laengen of Norway as the two leaders, but they were finally overtaken by the peloton with 20 kilometres left to go.
Several riders tried to attack, and Asgreen’s Danish teammate Michael Valgren looked successful for a while as he went 30 seconds ahead. The French team, however, closed the gap in an attempt to set up Bardet, but they also helped Valverde and Woods to the front.
It ultimately enabled Valverde to claim his first word title, two years before his announced retirement after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
– With files from The Canadian Press