Mike Woods unleashed a perfectly timed attack on the steep final slope in downtown Salt Lake City to win stage five of the Tour of Utah. The young climbing ace’s efforts seized him another coveted prize – the race’s overall lead and yellow jersey, by a slim four second margin over BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter. His tactical savvy and awareness in the race’s key moment mimicked the bold efforts of Eric Young one day earlier, giving Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies a second consecutive stage win and the team’s first yellow jersey in a 2.HC ranked race.
“It’s the biggest win of my career,” said Woods, simultaneously gasping for air and grinning widely after the finish. “It was a surreal moment for sure. I couldn’t believe it. The guys made sure that I was safe all day and especially going into that final climb. Phil Gaimon being in the break for much of the race took a lot of pressure off us. I tried to be in the best position and ride a steady pace for as long as possible before I made my move. I hit it with about 200 meters to go, and it was really tough, but I managed to hold the rest of the peloton off.”
Woods’ final attack came from behind Team Smartstop’s Jure Kocjan, who took the yellow jersey in stage four, and Kiel Reijnen, who wore it in stages two and three. That duo battled on the final hill, but their acceleration came too early – they could only watch as the Canadian made his emphatic final strike.
Stage five’s Salt Lake City Circuit Race was another hard, hilly day at the Tour of Utah – its seven laps covered only 55 miles, but the shortened distance meant a quicker pace up some of the steepest sections of road yet in Utah. After course recon in the morning, it was decided that the team would rally around the man known to shine on the steepest and punchiest of climbs.
“The circuit’s finish was changed from previous years, and as soon as we finished previewing the course I told the guys, ‘We’re all in for Woodsy today,’” said Performance Director Jonas Carney. “He’s an explosive climber, and I was confident he could win the stage. There are a lot of great riders here, but he is pretty incredible on these types of courses. He couldn’t have been more patient, or launched his move at a better time.”
The circuit’s main feature – a one mile stretch featuring two climbs with grades reaching 20% – ran all the way to the finish line on highland roads stretching above the Utah State Capitol Building. After Gaimon’s breakaway was caught, attacks and counterattacks flew over the closing laps, and the peloton began to disintegrate. Woods stayed positioned well, and waited patiently for an opportunity to strike.
“It was a really challenging course even though it was short,” he said. “It was a test of endurance because it was packed with twists, turns, ups and downs. It really fatigues you over time, and you could tell that it was taking its toll on the peloton. The last couple of laps, guys were going up the climb slower and slower. I felt great, but I knew I had to time it perfectly if I wanted to win the race.”
Woods’ stage win and yellow jersey takeover will be remembered as one of the team’s greatest single-day performances, but it adds a layer of difficulty to the final two days of racing – all eyes will be on the Orange & Black for tomorrow’s queen stage, a virtually all-uphill route with a summit finish in Snowbird.
“When you are given an opportunity to win a race and take yellow in process, you do not hesitate,” said Carney. “It could have been easier on us to let other teams do more of the work in the queen stage, sit back, and let Mike and Phil do their thing when the time was right. Now we are in a position where we need to defend yellow and control the race as much as possible. It will be very difficult, but I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. Two stage wins in a row and a yellow jersey – we have never done that at a race of this caliber. We will do everything we can to defend the jersey.”
Photos © Casey B. Gibson