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By Neal Rogers
When American Mike Friedman takes to the ADT Event Center Velodrome in Los Angeles for the qualifying round of the men’s World Cup scratch race Saturday afternoon, he’ll do so with the confidence that comes with winning a gold medal at the previous round in Beijing, China, in December.
That result, at the test event for this summer’s Olympic Games, was the biggest yet in the career of the 25-year-old Slipstream-Chipotle rider, who will start only his fifth career World Cup event in Los Angeles. In fact team physiologist Allen Lim called Friedman’s ride “one of the bigger things I’ve been a part of in cycling.”
“For those who don’t follow international track racing,” Lim said, “I can’t even begin to describe how big that win is. To put it into perspective it would be equivalent to an American winning Paris Roubaix.”
The stocky, muscular son of a big-rig truck driver, Friedman immediately bonded with new team recruit and roommate David Millar at Slipstream’s team camp in Boulder, Colorado, in November. With his thrift-store outfits, formalwear bowties and unbridled enthusiasm for the team’s nightly forays on to the dance floor — as well as his nickname “Meatball” — Friedman easily stood out from the rest of the team.
If he seems to be enjoying the ride more than most, it’s because in the fall of 2006 Friedman wasn’t sure if he would ever race again. Following a 2006 season that saw him finish as the top American at the International Championship in Philadelphia and fourth at the national time trial championships, Friedman had a surgical procedure to remove a saddle sore that nearly cost him his life.
He developed a pair of blood clots while driving from his former residence at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The clot eventually reached his lungs, sending him to the emergency room, and emergency surgery to relieve his pulmonary embolism.
Friedman learned that he had a condition called Factor 5 Leiden, a predisposition to form serious blood clots present in five percent of the general population. He was prescribed Coumadin, a blood thinner, for six months and was sworn off racing due to the risk of extensive bleeding should he crash. Doctors told him the infarction — or dead portion — in his lungs would be with him for life, and would cause painful breathing during intense exercise.
“I was crushed,” Friedman said. “I didn’t think a career in cycling was going to be possible. I thought my dreams were over.”
Friedman didn’t race again until May of 2007, when he rejoined his Slipstream teammates in Europe. His first race back was Four Days of Dunkirk, a race he described as “six days of hell.” His suffering was exasperated by intense lung pain, but he finished. Vaughters was impressed, soon offering Friedman a two-year contract. Friedman credits both Vaughters and Lim with helping him regain confidence in himself.
“JV told me that a good bike rider handles himself well on a bad day,” Friedman said. “That’s gotten me through so many hard days. And with Allen, I can call him with any issue I have. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep because I’ll be stressed out about something. Allen will make it more clear-sighted for me. He’s very understanding, and he will always listen to me. It’s really helpful.”
Back on track
Friedman began racing on the track in 2004 and was a member that year’s national pursuit championship winning squad. The following year he was named rider of the year at the Lehigh Valley Velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, the home track for the Pittsburgh native.
“That award was kind of a big deal, because there were a lot of international riders racing there,” Friedman said. “But to win a scratch race at the World Cup level was unreal. That was the biggest result by far.”
Because of jet lag, Friedman’s first time riding on the new Beijing track was during the qualifier for the scratch race. The second time was for the final.
“I had no idea what the track felt like, what it rode like,” Friedman said. “Every track is different. But I just tried to stay relaxed, listened to some AC/DC beforehand, and told myself to have fun and race my own race.”
Unlike the points race, the scratch race has no intermediate points or primes. Instead, the scratch is more like a criterium on a track, with only the finish line bearing importance. Friedman said he decided he would race the scratch in Beijing more tactically than he had in Sydney, Australia, a week earlier, where he attacked off the front but was caught with one lap to go and placed outside of the top 20.
“In Sydney I relied on brute strength,” Friedman said. “In Beijing I decided I’d ride on brute strength but also use the track. In Sydney I didn’t use the track that much. In Beijing I focused on staying high at the rail but right at the front and always having an escape route so if there was an attack, I could just pop right down the track and get on the back of that. During the first 20 [of 60] laps there were a lot of attacks, but I was in every single move I needed to be in.”
Midway through, Friedman joined a move with seven other riders that lapped the field with 12 laps remaining. Suddenly the worst he could finish was eighth. Once he and his breakaway companions had worked their way through the field, several different riders tried to jump clear, however nothing stuck until Friedman caught Belgian rider Tim Mertens with four laps remaining.
“I caught Tim and just kept going,” Friedman said. “I read somewhere that I’d won a sprint finish. That was wrong. I went across solo by about 15 bike lengths. It was an unbelievable feeling. Looking back over my shoulder with two laps to go, one lap to go, I couldn’t believe I was going to win this race. A year ago I didn’t know if I would be able to race again because of a pulmonary embolism, and there I was on the podium next to two superstars, hearing the national anthem and watching the flag rise. Nobody knows this, but I went to the bathroom afterwards and just cried. It was really an emotional experience, just to let go and know that I had moved on.”
Friedman also raced the Madison in Beijing with his new partner Colby Pearce. The pair first raced together in Sydney, where they didn’t take any points or win any sprints and finished 11th. But in Beijing, which Friedman said was the fastest Madison ever held, each rider scored points and they finished sixth, two points from fourth place.
“We beat a lot of good teams, it was really encouraging,” Friedman said. “Right now we’re ranked seventh, and they take the top 13 to the Olympics. We’re as strong as the best guys in the world, the only thing we’re lacking is some technique.”
And with the scratch race win, Friedman is one step closer to his dream of returning to Beijing in August as a member of the U.S. Olympic team. Though the Olympics have been a goal of Friedman’s for several years, he knew he had to prove himself not only to USA Cycling officials but also to his Slipstream-Chipotle boss Jonathan Vaughters. Even if Slipstream hasn’t been guaranteed a spot at Paris-Roubaix, Vaughters is treating the team’s 2008 schedule as though it has. And though he’s never raced the Hell of the North, Vaughters is expecting Friedman to be a strong support rider for 2004 winner Magnus Bäckstedt.
“Jonathan told me I had the first two World Cups and then I had to make a choice whether I wanted to race the track or not,” Friedman said. “I have to prove to him that I could win, or do well. I knew I could, but I hadn’t done a World Cup in almost two years. He’d told me, if you don’t win or perform well, there’s no point in going to the Olympics if you’re just going to get your head kicked in. Sydney went okay, but Beijing felt good and I felt confident, I just went in and had fun racing my bike again. And the fact that I won the scratch race gave Jonathan the motivation and courage to let me do the L.A. and Copenhagen World Cups and worlds, but he told me I also have to be ready for Paris-Roubaix.”
Skeptics have warned Friedman about the perils of quickly switching over from track racing to road racing, but he said he’s not overly concerned about it.
“You just have to train for the road and race the track,” Friedman said. You do a four- or five-hour road ride, and then you come back and do an hour on the rollers and you’re ready to rock and roll. It’s still riding a bike.”
Friedman’s 2008 road schedule includes the February 6-9 Etoile de Bessèges stage race, followed by the Copenhagen World Cup, the world track championships and then Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix. The enormity of Friedman’s wildest dreams becoming his immediate goals hasn’t been lost on the rider known as Meatball.
“Two years ago I was an amateur, now I have my first trips to the Olympics and Paris-Roubaix scheduled in the same year,” he said. “It’s unreal. It’s my dream, and my passion, and to have made it my job is a cool, cool realization.”