Michael Friedman of Jelly Belly is not going to win the overall title for the Tour of California.
Nor was he the winner of stage six, the queen stage, the generally insane, seven KOM mountain extravaganza served up by tour organizers who wanted to show the cycling world that just like Europe, they could inflict absurd amounts of intense pain on riders.
The stage had been marketed as judge and jury for this years’ event. Didn’t happen although the young and astonishingly talented Peter Sagan of Liquigas took a well-deserved win.
But no, didn’t see that headline story unfold up front because we were in the back witnessing a dramatic race that nobody saw, appreciated, celebrated or understood. It was the difference between a sprinter finishing a proud 65th on a day of relentless mountain torture or finishing HD — a French term that sadly means “out of time”, a rider who comes in outside the time limit and is therefore eliminated. HD means you pack your suitcase for a flight out, you’re done.
Does that sound life threatening — because in a bike race, the biggest one in the United States, it is. I was riding with Danny Van Haute, the director sportif for the domestic squad Jelly Belly. It didn’t take long in this climb-heavy stage to see the riders who were in big trouble. Michael Friedman, the team’s top sprinter, was one of them.
It should first be noted that when crap hit the circling overhead fan, big name sprinters like Tom Boonen, Francesco Chicchi of Liquigas, JJ Haedo and Ben Day of Fly V had already said thanks but no thanks. You look at Friedman and you know he ain’t no climber — he’s short, powerfully built with big thighs and no anorexia. Ergo, he was in a world of pain right away.
Over the next several hours, Friedman turned himself inside and out to avoid the embarrassment of being stuck in the last group on the road, the guys facing elimination. Friedman consistently lost contact with his group when the climbs got nasty but used his experience, mental toughness and descending skills to catch back on time and time again.
Just watching him from the car was exhausting and inspiring. There were a couple of long — dare we say UCI questionable — water bottle slings where Danny would hold out a bottle, Friedman would grab it and together they would rocket forward. I cannot actually testify that happened.
The signature moment for me was when he lost contact once again and had to come back on the descent. Friedman reached the back of his team car and stayed within 6 inches of the bumper while bombing the descent at 60+ miler per hour.
Yes, Peter Sagan is a massive talent, yes, Dave Zabriskie, Michael Rodgers and Levi Leipheimer are big stars but what I saw at the back end of the race showed me the immense pride and force of will that Michael Friedman has. He finished in 65th and the group he so easily could have fallen back into — the Cavendish group — was eliminated. Friedman lives to fight another day and not pack a suitcase.
Stage six of the Tour of California had one winner. But I would ask for a revision and put Mark Friedman of Jelly Belly on that victory sheet, too. Some days 65th feels like first place.