A voice in his ear spurred Canadian rider Mike Woods on. His heart and legs did the rest.
The result was an emotional victory in Stage 17 of the Spanish Vuelta, with Woods joining Ryder Hesjedal as the only Canadians to win a stage of the third Grand Tour race on the calendar.
The Ottawa cyclist outlasted the field in a 157-kilometre stage that finished with a tough climb up Balcon de Bizkaia in Basque Country, and then dedicated the win to his stillborn son, who died this year when his wife was 37 weeks pregnant.
“His name was Hunter,” Woods said after the race Wednesday, fighting to get the words out. “The whole time I was going up the climb, I was thinking of him and I wanted to win so bad for him. And I did.”
Team sport director Juan Manuel Garate was on the car radio, telling Woods in the last 500 metres: “Do this for your family.”
“When he won, I cried like a baby in the car,” Garate said. “I’m happier for him today than I was for myself when I won a stage of the Tour.”
Woods crossed the line five seconds in front of Dylan Teuns and 10 seconds ahead of David de la Cruz.
Woods said that his wife also lost her father a month ago.
“It’s been a very hard year,” he said. “I was cracked on the finish line. I tried to stay calm, I tried to think of my family and to think of my little Hunter as an inspiration.”
It marked the first stage win at a Grand Tour race for the rider from team Education First-Drapac.
“To win is great,” team chief executive Jonathan Vaughters said. “To overcome the sadness he and his wife have been through this year is what truly makes me grateful and humble to have someone like Mike amongst us.”
Woods is the second Canadian in history to win a Spanish Vuelta stage. Victoria’s Hesjedal won stages in 2009 and 2014.
Woods was runner-up on Stage 4 of the Giro D’Italia in May. Slowed by illness in the second week, Woods went on to finish 19th over all in the Giro.
Hesjedal won the Giro in 2012, the only Canadian ever to win a Grand Tour event.
Woods stands 35th over all in this year’s Vuelta.
The former elite distance runner crashed in the August Tour of Utah and said he was using the Vuelta to prepare for the world championship road race that follows 10 days after. But he did not rule out making a run at a stage win.
He turned heads last year by finishing seventh over all in his first crack at the Vuelta – placing third on Stage 9.
Woods made history in April when he finished second in the prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège one-day race in April – the first Canadian to reach the podium at the event.
Meanwhile, Simon Yates lost a few seconds of his Spanish Vuelta lead.
Yates’s gap to Alejandro Valverde was cut from 33 seconds to 25 seconds after a solid climb by the veteran Spaniard. Enric Mas also had a good run and moved up to third place over all, 1:22 behind Yates.
Nairo Quintana struggled the most, losing more than a minute and dropping out of the top 5 in the general classification.
No changes at the top are expected Thursday, when riders will face a flat 186.1-kilometre stage from Ejea de los Caballeros to Lleida in northeastern Spain.
The three-week Grand Tour race ends Sunday in Madrid.