What does it take to acquire the nickname “Meatball” in the sport of professional cycling? As a 5’ 9” 170 pound former high school wrestler, Mike Friedman had both the physique and the personality to live up to one of cycling’s most unusual monikers. His unique size and stockiness helped Friedman roll across banked tracks, through sprint finishes, and down dangerous descents with the power and efficiency of a bowling ball. Throw in a liberal dose of humor, work ethic, and positivity, and you’ve made your Meatball.
This week, Friedman announces his retirement from cycling after 10 years in the pro peloton and four seasons with the team. He ended a decade of racing in typically gritty fashion – as a last minute call-up for Colorado’s grueling USA Pro Challenge following a strep throat diagnosis for Will Routley. It was a brutal seven days of racing to tackle without proper training and acclimation, but he toughed it out, crossing the race’s final finish line in Denver intact and unpinning his numbers with dignity for the last time.
The thirty-two year old Pittsburgh native’s career was full of high points. He contested the Spring Classics with the Garmin team in 2008, racing Paris Roubaix, Milan San Remo, and the Tour of Flanders. His Classics run was highlighted by a 12th place finish at the grueling Het Volk, contesting the bunch sprint after driving the day’s breakaway for 180 kilometers. Despite his efforts on the road, the indoor track may have been the place where Meatball found himself most comfortable – he won six national titles on the hardwood from 2005 – 2007 in solo pursuit, madison and team pursuit (alongside future Optum p/b KBS teammates Michael Creed and Brad Huff). Friedman’s speed on the track eventually led him to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he competed in the madison alongside Bobby Lea. After the Olympics, he continued to race on the road and developed a reputation in the US as a passionate and hard working teammate.
“Mike was a natural fit for our team. He’s outgoing and intense and he always gave 100%, whether it was a local race or the Tour of California,” said Performance Director Jonas Carney. “The rest of the team fed on that kind of energy, and it brought everyone to another level. As a continental team, if you want to go up against WorldTour teams and get results, you need that kind of energy and intensity. It was great having Mike on the team for the last five years, and he will be greatly missed.”
We sat down with Friedman to talk about what he will remember most from a lifetime in the sport.
What has cycling meant to your life?
“Cycling is a sport that I’ve competed in since I was 13, and has defined me for nearly 20 years. I’ve had the opportunity to race in 36 countries on various continents and in hundreds, if not thousands, of cities. I went from riding my bike around Pittsburgh as a little kid to competing in Paris Roubaix, Milan San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, multiple World Championships, and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It all felt like a dream. This sport gave me the opportunity to meet the President of the United States (twice!) and yes, I stressed about eating with proper etiquette thanks to my mom’s old adage, “What if someday you eat dinner with the President? You need to know how to eat politely.” I have been fortunate to have the support of many amazing people throughout my life. These people spent time coaching, teaching, guiding and sponsoring me. The friends, stories, and connections that I made through this amazing sport were building blocks for who I am today. It’s allowed me to look at the world differently and provided me with an education that can’t be attained anywhere else.”
What was unique about your time with Optum p/b KBS?
“The last four years I spent with Optum and Kelly Benefit Strategies have been nothing short of amazing. It wasn’t just a team, but more so a band of brothers with the bicycle being the arms we bore together. We shared the same ideals and had many highs and lows riding for what we believed in. I’m very proud to have ridden my whole career 100% clean. Hard work, sleep, good nutrition, and sacrifice got me where I am today. I never considering doping, and I’m exceptionally proud of that fact. I believe in 100% pure sport, and I was privileged to ride for a team and a director in Jonas Carney who share such an important belief.”
Are there any moments that stand out from your time with the team?
“There are many moments I can remember being “major highlights”. As cyclists we set lots of goals, and whether we achieved those goals or get as close as we can, I will always consider it a highlight. I learned too late in my career that you can’t afford to be too happy with success and too low during hard times. One week can be huge success for the team, and the very next weekend we could all crash or get our backsides handed to us by another team. If I had to pinpoint a favorite highlight with Optum p/b KBS, the 2012 UCI World Championship Team Time Trial in Holland definitely stands out. It was a fantastic time for me and for our team for many reasons. We had a great time training together and living in close quarters at our team house in Belgium. We were incredibly focused on a result and we went after it, even if we still got beat handily by the ProTour teams.”
“I will also miss the beach house we rented in Oxnard, CA every year for training camp (I don’t mean the riding – I was always sore from that!). The activities and team bonding it provided were awesome: getting on wet suits to go ocean kayaking or swimming; kite flying; field goal kicking on the beach; trying to surf with Cando; walking the quiet beach at night and thinking about life; planking competitions in the living room; coffee on the back porch in the AM and a glass of wine in the PM. I’m really going to miss my time there with teammates both old and new.”
What was your biggest influence in the sport of cycling?
“My Dad was my biggest influence. He was overweight by the time I showed any real interest in his Masi Gran Criterium. It was his original bike, one that I now have since he passed away this June. We never did an actual “ride” together, but when I was a junior racer he worked for a trucking company as a manager. He had his CDL so he would commandeer a truck on Friday night after work, and we’d hit the road for Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, or wherever else there was a Lance Armstrong Junior Olympic Series Race (LAJORS). He would drive all night and I’d sleep in the sleeper cab, only to be awoken in the morning by fresh pancakes, exactly three hours before each race. He’d sleep some if he could, watch the race while walking the course, sleep some more if he could, and then we’d pick up a return load for his truck and head home Sunday afternoon. Sometimes that meant getting dropped off at school Monday morning in a semi truck. My Dad is the one who really believed in me early on, and he did whatever he could to allow me to race. I really, really miss him.”
Any last words?
From the bottom of my heart, I want to personally thank everyone who involved themselves in my life of cycling. Every moment was truly special, and all of the support allowed me to keep “chasing the dream”. For every professional athlete, retirement will come, but that doesn’t mean what we enjoy doing so much has to retire with it. I’m very excited for what the future holds, and plan on attacking it with the same energy I put towards my cycling career.
After hearing of Mike’s decision to retire the team began sharing some of their favorite moments from the last four years of the man they called “Meatball.”