I remember that the race was long and lumpy, 18 times around a roughly six-mile loop. I remember that on one side of the course rain would sprinkle and splatter, and on the other side the sun would bake road grit against my lips. I remember racing down single-lane roads canopied by ancient oak trees and haunting willows. I remember horses grazing in green fields framed by white fences. I remember a swamp. Humidity. I remember I felt good. I felt as good as I will ever feel on a bicycle. I know that now.
One warm evening during the summer of 2001, in a leafy suburb outside of Columbus, Ohio, I climbed into a white passenger van with five other odorous and messy-haired young bike racers. I was 21, and on a cycling team sponsored by the Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith, Arkansas. We’d just finished five consecutive days of national calendar criterium racing, and in about a week’s time we’d line up at the under-23 national championship in Gainesville, Florida.
During that dreamy, formative summer, I’d raced my bicycle in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Massachusetts, Arkansas, and Wisconsin. In Elgin, Illinois, I’d lost a sprint to a future Tour de France rider. In San Francisco, I rode across the Golden Gate Bridge, gazed upon the blue Pacific, and ate a burrito in the Mission district. In California’s Central Valley, my sweat-soaked back stuck to the vinyl seat of a 1989 Toyota Corolla. I kissed a girl with curly blond hair, read a Chuck Palahniuk novel, wrote emails at public libraries, and browsed for clothes at thrift stores. I wore out a Strokes CD, watched bad movies, collected surf magazines though I’d never surfed.
We drove in shifts on our way to Gainesville, straight through. At some point in the night, I fell asleep on one of the lumpy bench seats. I woke with the sun.
I remember that the course and the climate, the handful of heavily marked favorites, and the nature of a national championship (one winner and a hundred-some losers), made for an uncontrolled and chaotic four-and-a-half-hour race. I remember how riders would surge forward in groups of four or six, and coalesce into packs of 24 or 15, only to break apart again. Every time a group of racers surged forward, I would search for strength in my legs, and my legs would respond, and I would be able to leave the pack, go out in front, catch the others.
And I remember with about two laps to go I found myself in one of those lead groups, eight or maybe nine riders. I remember knowing there were fast finishers in that group, racers I didn’t want to have to sprint against at the end, so I attacked. I would get caught, and attack again. And again. With about a lap and a half remaining, I attacked and no one followed me.
I remember that when I was clear, when I knew I was clear, I peered backward, beneath the crevice of my arm and torso, and saw a white and black jersey gaining on me. It was a rider I didn’t recognize, didn’t know. By the time he got to my rear wheel, he looked too exhausted to help me, too beat to be able to pull hard enough to help the two of us stay away. So I attacked again. I didn’t want him with me. I didn’t need him. I wanted to go alone.
But every time I attacked him, I remember, he would claw his way back to me.
Mike Friedman had spent the summer at a training center for cyclists in New York’s Catskill Mountains. He’d traveled to that race in Elgin, Illinois, too, the one where the racer who would go on to ride in the Tour de France had beaten me. Mike had drunk five espressos before the start of that race, and dropped out. He saw the racer from the Mercy team who got second, and he thought that the racer was pretty good.
Mike was 18. He’d gotten overtrained and was overstressed, so in the weeks preceding the national championship he’d stopped riding hard. He ate cake. He painted a friend’s home to earn some money. He figured that if he even went to nationals he’d get his ass kicked. But a close friend was going down, the only other good junior racer in the Pittsburgh area. His friend’s family was wealthy, drove a nice RV, had an expensive, rare hypoxic breathing machine that could mimic the effects of altitude and increase an athlete’s red blood cell count. Mike and his friend and his friend’s dad drove to Gainesville, camping out along the way, listening to Neil Young, riding motorcycles they’d brought.
Mike also scrutinized the results in the back pages of the racing magazines. He knew that prodigies like Danny Pate and Michael Creed, with more than a dozen national titles between them already, would line up at the under-23 championship. He knew that the five-man Mercy team would be there, its riders outfitted with matching gray Trek bicycles and garish hunter-green and magenta jerseys, and including the reigning under-23 national champion, Brice Jones. Along the way, he learned that the Mercy team employed two masseuses, and each of the team’s riders had received an hour-long rub in the week preceding the national championship race. Mike didn’t have a team. He didn’t have much confidence. But he knew that the mostly flat course suited his compact and powerful body. And he knew that in a bicycle race, anything could happen.
I had come into the race as a relative novice, even though I’d been a cyclist my whole life. I’d grown up a high school cross-country runner and mountain biker in a road-racing family. My dad’s love affair with bikes began in the 1960s, when my great uncle bequeathed him a cardboard box of heirloom
parts. My parents’ first date involved a bike ride. Summers, we traveled to the junior national championships, where my brother raced. Dinner parties, we spent with bicycle club friends. Weekends, we went to bike rallies in rural Texas towns. But road racing wasn’t really my thing until 1999, when I let my dad buy me a road bike for my 19th birthday. I started racing with the team at the University of Texas at Austin, the school where my older brother had won a national championship. I was green. But I was good. In that first year of racing, when I didn’t crash, I often won.
Now, three years after my first collegiate road race, I had a shot at a national title. All I had to do was shake the rider in the black-and-white kit. I remember attacking him again.
The moment the words left his mouth, Mike regretted saying them.
“I won’t sprint,” he said. “You can win.”
For more than a hundred miles, he’d done everything right. Every time he’d come through the start-finish line, he’d grabbed either a water bottle or an energy bar. He’d exerted his energy in all the right spots, followed the right wheels, kept himself in a position to win. But now there was this racer. The one in the garish green and magenta Mercy jersey. Every time Mike did a pull at the front, this racer would attack him. Mike would come back to the racer’s wheel, only to get attacked again. After each attack and chase, the pace would slow to a crawl. Mike looked back. He saw the pack getting closer to catching us. He panicked. He offered a deal.
In bike racing, the immense energy savings of one rider drafting behind another can make two competitors of differing strengths essentially equal, and stronger together than either would be solo. A rider who is weaker or at a tactical disadvantage will sometimes offer a promise not to sprint for the win if the stronger rider will promise to stop trying to get away. The stronger racer does the bulk of the pulling into the wind as the other racer sits in the slipstream. In return, the weaker racer will do what he or she can to help the break survive, taking occasional pulls to give their partner some respite. In this way, with the weaker rider exchanging an almost nonexistent shot at winning for a more secure opportunity for a high placing, both riders have a better chance of succeeding. No written rules broker a deal. It’s a verbal handshake.
Although all of this is a time-honored and accepted strategy within racing, rarely does someone publicly admit to making a deal.
Even more rarely does someone break a deal.
I remember that I put my head down and hammered. My title as national champion had just been promised to me by my breakaway partner. A race official riding a motorcycle shouted to us through his full-face helmet. Thirty seconds, he said. Nine miles to go. I rode through the start-finish line with six miles to go. Forty-five seconds, someone said.
We turned onto the back straightaway. One minute, the man on the motorcycle said. I will win, I thought. My family will be so proud.
I flicked my elbow and waved Mike through. He pulled. But I remember that I was pulling harder. As hard as I could pull. I held nothing back. Near a sign that said there was one kilometer to go, we rounded a left hand turn. I looked back at Mike. I said to him, “You remember our deal?”
Mike grew up without much money. His dad, a dispatcher for a trucking company, loved bikes, too. When Mike turned 10, his dad bought him a road bike, and started picking him up from school in a semi-truck on Friday afternoons. Mike would sleep on a bunk in the cab of the truck and his dad would drive through the night to a national-level junior race in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. They’d get to the race, and Mike’s dad would wake him up. They’d go to a diner, and eat pancakes.
Mike would race and his dad would watch. They’d sleep for a little bit, then his dad would drop the truck’s load off, and pick up a load that needed to go back to Pittsburgh. That’s how Mike and his dad got to bike races.
In that two-man breakaway at the under-23 national championship in the sprinkling rain and sun in a swamp outside of Gainesville, Florida, Mike remembers that at about one kilometer to go, the other racer turned to him and reminded him that they had a deal, that Mike had said he wouldn’t sprint.
But Mike can’t remember if he acknowledged the other racer. He can’t remember if he nodded yes, the way I remember it, or if he didn’t do anything at all. He remembers only that when he saw the finish line, a banner across the road at the top of a short abrupt hill, he suddenly was sprinting. He was a good sprinter.
When his front wheel crossed the finish line taped flat across the road, all he could think was, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. But he felt no euphoria. Before he knew it, before he could change it, he had won the national championship.
I remember how I had anticipated joy and instead my body surged with pain and anger. Like something that I wanted so badly, and had allowed myself to believe I already owned, had been stolen from me. I remember my legs seizing with cramps. My vision blurry with sweat and salt. I caught up to Mike just past the finish line, and I hit him on the back. I yelled something.
I remember that he looked back at me. He looked shocked. He said that on the podium, he would give the jersey and the medal to me. Then I heard Mike’s coach tell him no, this was a race. That the first racer across the line wins.
On the podium—after the drug test, after our faces were wiped clean and our sponsors’ hats were placed atop our heads, and after I had talked to a reporter for the bike racing publication VeloNews and was quoted as saying, “He told me not to attack and I could have the win. If he hadn’t have said anything, it would have been a whole different race”—I watched someone hand Mike the stars-and-stripes jersey of the national champion, and I watched Mike wrestle the jersey on and lean forward as someone draped a gold medal around his neck.
I locked my lips to keep them from trembling. When the other racers on the podium raised their arms, I did not raise mine.
Mike wished he had gotten second. Had he gotten second, he would have achieved a personal best result. Had he gotten second, he would not feel so embarrassed even though he had just won a national title. Had he gotten second, he would not need to later fabricate an explanation based on semantics: That he didn’t offer a deal at all. That actually, he had told the other racer that if the racer worked with him, then the racer could win. And he wouldn’t have to lie about why he really felt sorry—because of what he had done—by saying that it was only because the second-place rider had misunderstood him.
Had Mike gotten second, he would not later read an article about the race, the first story ever published about him in a national cycling publication, that portrayed him as having broken one of bike racing’s sacred codes. And had Mike gotten second, he would not feel like a cheater every time he lined up at a bike race.
A long drive to Arkansas from Florida, lying prone in the back of a passenger van. Sun streaming through a van window. Shadows flashing across my face. A wetness welling in my eyes, a succession of blinks to suppress the tears.
A bed in Fort Smith, Arkansas, from where I rose only to eat or to use the restroom. A call from my mother—“come home”—and a flight to the Washington, D.C., area, where my parents had relocated. An email from the director of the U.S. national team, and an invitation to race in Europe, all expenses paid.
A house in Belgium, and a dozen of the best young racers in the U.S. Kind words from riders I admired: “You are, essentially, a national champion.” A contract with a U.S.-based professional racing team sponsored by the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.
Then a knee injury. My dream had barely begun, and it was over.
Mike felt so bad when he raced bikes that he quit. He went to college, studied biology, for a year and a half tried and failed to find a new path in life. Then someone suggested he put his explosive power to use on the banked oval of a velodrome. He left Penn State and began racing track bikes and eventually made the U.S. Olympic team. He went to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He got last place. But he felt proud. He got the Olympic bands tattooed on his wrist, and sometimes he would point to the tattoo and say, that…that is real. He went back to the road, and raced professionally at a high level, competed at Paris-Roubaix, finished twelfth at the European classic Omloop Het Volk. He became known by the nickname Meatball, became a beloved persona in domestic racing. He met the President of the United States, twice, and the President remembered his name the second time.
Every year he raced pro, his team supplied him with a stack of cards with his photo on the front and his lifetime racing results on the back. Every year he looked at the card and saw listed there as one of his honors the 2001 U.S. Under-23 National Championship, and he would know that it was not real. That it was no honor after all.
In 2013, I was at another national championships for under-23 racers. This one was in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was a helper, not a competitor. I’d become a journalist. I’d written a book. I had a career, but I still rode and raced a bit as an amateur, and my friends and I had started our own team, Super Squadra, full of eager and anxious and fast 20-year-olds, for whom I spent a lot of my spare hours filling water bottles and making sandwiches, and driving to and from races, and offering encouragement. I watched them ride and race, and I saw how important this all felt to them, and I told them something I believed but wasn’t really thinking deeply about: that whatever happened, they should cherish the experience. Because whatever the results of a race ended up being, the experience was what would remain with them.
While I was in Madison for that national championship, I called home to check in with my wife, who was pregnant. We talked, as we’d been doing lately, about the renovations we were making to the house we’d just bought, the things we needed to do to prepare for the baby. When I hung up, I recalled how losing that race in 2001 had felt like the end of the world. And I thought about how so much more had happened since. And then I watched Super Squadra’s under-23 team race together, and I saw them make mistakes and enjoy small victories, and I saw how, wow, they were just kids. I was just a kid when that championship was taken from me. Mike was just a kid when he took it. And right then, more or less, I let go of that hurt I’d held onto for so long.
In 2014, at the national championship road race for professional riders in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Mike got a phone call. His dad was dying of pancreatic cancer. Mike went home and cared for his father. Mike felt his father’s sagging weight, 250 pounds, as Mike carried him to the bathroom. Mike watched a rabbi kneel by his father’s bed, and heard his father speak Hebrew.
Before he died, Mike’s father introduced him to a boy. The boy’s classmates teased him because he couldn’t ride a bicycle. Mike’s father said, my son is an Olympian, he can teach the boy to ride. And so one day, Mike took the boy out. Mike took the wheel off his bicycle. He spun the wheel, and he let the boy hold the wheel, try to turn the wheel, and Mike said, it’s science, keep moving and you won’t fall. By the end of the day, the boy could ride. He would no longer be teased. Mike had changed the boy’s life.
At around the same time, while his father was dying, Mike asked his girlfriend to marry him. He became a husband and a stepfather, and he quit professional bike racing, and he moved to Golden, Colorado, and with the help of his wife who worked in education, he started an after-school cycling program, Pedaling Minds, and taught kids to ride bicycles.
Mike and his wife fought sometimes, and Mike felt the way they fought was not okay. She was the only person who he had told the truth to about the race in Gainesville, and she would use it against him. She would tell him that everything he had achieved had been based upon a lie, and it would bring him to his knees. More than once, he left, came back. Left. Moved out. Went back. Eventually, she asked him for a divorce.
He moved back home, back to Pittsburgh. He had no family. No job. No home. He began riding and racing again. He started thinking about what really made him happy, and it was teaching kids to ride. Eventually, he decided to return to Colorado, to Boulder, to see if he could restart Pedaling Minds in the school district there. He drove back across the country.
And as Mike drove, he made a call he’d long wanted to make. Long needed to make. He said into the phone that he had that jersey with him. He said, I cheated. I’m sorry.
He felt so light.
I flew up from my home in Austin, and we met at the house of a mutual friend in Fort Collins, Colorado. Mike and I embraced, and right away, he handed me the jersey with the stripes and the stars. He apologized for how wrinkled it was. It had been in a drawer, he said. He said he’d meant to frame it. He said it was important that he give me the jersey as soon as he saw me.
We went on a ride together, into the foothills of the Front Range. “You were such a talented racer,” Mike said. I asked him about his childhood, and I learned how a blue-collar kid from Pittsburgh made it to the Olympics. We climbed a mountain, and came back down. We laid our bikes on the bank of a reservoir, and dove into the water. Mike said he had wanted to make things right for years, but hadn’t known how.
Later that day, when I was alone, I pulled the jersey out of my bag. I rubbed the blue and white fabric between my fingers. I took a photo of the jersey. I texted it to my wife. I wondered if I really felt like a national champion. You won that bike race, Mike had said.
I held the jersey in my hand and I thought about how, when I was younger and more preoccupied with the questions of winning and losing, I had believed it possessed a power. I had thought the jersey could change the course of things. It did, but not in the way I’d envisioned. For so long, for Mike and me, the jersey had been a burden, even felt like a curse.
I wondered what I would do with the jersey, where I would put it, whether my son or my daughter would see it and ask me about it, and what I would say. Would I say that on one steamy August day, more than a decade ago, I had been the best bike racer in my age group in the United States? Or would I say that this is something that I lost, and then it came back to me? Would I preach to them about honesty and integrity and morals?
I wondered: Who am I to preach?
I held the jersey in my hand. I pulled down the zipper. And I put it on.