The last time that Mike Friedman (Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) pedalled a bicycle in anger was at the 2011 USA Cycling Professional Road Championship on May 30, a race in which he was dropped on the opening lap. Complications from what doctors would diagnose as a life-long kink in his iliac artery, a condition which significantly decreased blood flow to his left leg, had steadily progressed to such a degree that for the multi-time US champion and 2008 Olympian cycling had become an impossibility.
Amazingly, just prior to the US pro championships, Friedman finished the Amgen Tour of California, where he already had a strong inkling that the suffering he endured was rooted in problems with his iliac artery.
"I did ok there. I suffered badly in the mountains and I just couldn't hold wheels because of my leg, but I was able to get in a breakaway the last day there," Friedman told Cyclingnews.
"I had been talking to some other athletes [about kinked iliac arteries]. In fact on the Mt. Baldy stage I had seen Chad Hartley on the side of the road and he had also had the same surgery. I was already dropped and I yelled at him, 'Dude, I think I need to have the surgery and what are the symptoms?' And he yelled back to me, but it was in the middle of the race on a climb."
Fast forward to February 29, 2012 and an exceptionally vibrant Friedman is on the eve of his return to competitive cycling in Merced, California at the four-day Merco Credit Union Cycling Classic, March 1-4. After a positive diagnosis of his iliac artery kink following the US pro championships, corrective surgery in July, 2011 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the green light to resume cycling again in September, Friedman has rebounded from a potentially career-ending ailment with a renewed fervor and fighting spirit.
"I've been given a second chance," Friedman said. "It was a pretty big risk for me to do the surgery with the blood clotting thing that I have, and now that I've had the surgery I've trained, I'm in the clear, and I have a second chance to race my bike. I can't really put it into words, I'm just excited. And as blunt as I can get, I'm just not going to f*** up my second chance to race my bike and do it well."
After a steady progression in training, capped off by his team's recent two-week training camp in Oxnard, California, the 29-year-old Superior, Colorado resident has been eagerly awaiting his return to competition in his second season with the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Continental squad. "Tomorrow is the first race and I'm just excited to be here with the guys and to have the opportunity to race again. Tomorrow is the first real test and then we've got a few more stages.
"I'm not here to just race into shape, I'm here to race my bike and try to win stages. I'm not going to take any race for granted anymore. With the team last year and years prior I would just race my bike and if I made the move to win the race...great. Now I'm going to use everything I have to the best of my ability - racing smart, training smart, eating smart, resting smart, just doing it all so I can be ready for my chance at success.
"Any race, no matter how big or small, I want to win and I don't want to miss out. I'll probably have about another five years in my career, hopefully it will be longer, but that's pretty optimistic. I'll be 34 then and I don't want to miss any more opportunities."
Not only has Friedman entered the 2012 season with a renewed passion, but he feels that his whole team is embarking on the upcoming season similarly motivated.
"Last year, for whatever reason, we couldn't put it together all the time," said Friedman. "This year we're going into it with a totally different mindset. Last year I think it was almost that we assumed we were going to kick ass. I think we underestimated certain races and I think halfway through the season we had to really focus and buckle down and get it back together.
"This year it's a new start, a new title sponsor, a new image of the team. We have a lot of the same guys, but sometimes you need a season where you don't have success as a whole. Don't get me wrong, we had success last year. Alex Candelario had some great results at California, Jesse [Anthony] had a breakout year last year. We had a good year but as a whole there were some things that were lacking. I think a lot of the guys are looking at last year not as a failure but something where we know we could do better. We know we're better than that and we're going into this year stronger."
All of the progress Friedman has made, however, is tempered somewhat by the chance of complications with his repaired iliac artery, although all signals point to a complete recovery.
"There's always a risk of scar tissue building up and narrowing the area back down," said Friedman. "So far I haven't had any complications. They say that for up to a year and a half scar tissue can form and re-narrow the area, however Dr. [Thomas] Crepps, the guy I saw, explained to me that because my kink was in an area that wasn't functionally caused by cycling it's unlikely that will happen to me. The kink was actually fairly high up in my abdomen, it wasn't down where I'm pressuring it pedaling so it should be fine.
"I'm feeling pretty good on the bike, I'm feeling strong, so hopefully it will all come together. I'm just ready to rock 'n' roll."