Michael Freiberg interview (part 1): 2017 NRS winner
RIDE continues the ‘Talking Cycling’ series of interviews. This time we speak with the 2017 NRS champion, Michael Freiberg. He’s got quite a history with cycling – on the track, the road and in business.
The Australian NRS – National Road Series – has seen better days but apparently there is a revival underway. Last week, Cycling Australia formally unveiled plans for a revamped series.
The revised format has been years in the making and it remains to be seen exactly how successful it can be but, as we’ve learned from experience, the passionate supporters – and sponsors – of road cycling in Australia are an optimistic bunch.
With Kip Kaufmann in charge of the NRS, there’s reason to believe that some of the ambitious plans will actually come to fruition; he is respected in the cycling community and has considerable vision for how road racing in Australia could be.
The domestic scene includes a range of teams that are committed to the NRS even at a time when it’s unclear what events are going to be regular items on the schedule. Leading the charge, season after season, is the team managed by Andrew Christie-Johnson. In 2017 it was called IsoWhey-SwissWellness and, at the last minute, it recruited the services of Michael Freiberg for an itinerary of races around Australia and abroad. Lo, the West Australian would go on to win the NRS title with an impressive collection of 535 points, well ahead of his nearest rivals.
Click the link to listen to our interview with Michael Freiberg, and/or read the transcript below.
You can find the Michael Freiberg interview – and many other discussions about cycling – on RIDE’s SoundCloud channel.
RIDE: I’m talking with Michael Freiberg… It’s a couple of weeks since he was crowned NRS champion of 2017. From my understanding, you weren’t even going to race the NRS [this year]. Is that right?
Michael Freiberg: “Yeah, that’s right. The NRS wasn’t on the radar at all.
“In January of this year we planned to maybe go to Belgium and maybe have a crack over there for a couple of months and just see where that led – really, just enjoy riding my bike. But then the chance to ride with an NRS team came up and I was able to grab on with both hands.”
In January, you were rolling around [at] the Tour Down Under but you were spruiking a product that you invented – not actually even going close to the racing scene. Do you want to give us a little bit of background about that?
“Yeah, sure. Over the last five years I’ve been developing the AirHub which an on-road resistance training device. What it basically does is it hooks up to your iPhone and it’s like having a Wahoo KICKR out on the road – you can adjust the resistance as you ride along and it talks to your heart rate monitor and your power meter, so you can have your whole ride controlled – and you can ride with partners who aren’t really as fit.
“Down at the Tour Down Under we were over there talking to a lot of coaches and professional teams and a lot of riders as well about how they could start using the AirHub.”
This is entirely your initiative, isn’t it?
“Yeah, this is my baby. I saw a problem, and a need for this type of product, back in 2012 when I was with the AIS.
“As the training was becoming more scientific, you had to go and train by yourself more often [and] you were stuck staring at your power meter. And that’s something that’s not really conducive to why we like going riding; people are social and they love the enjoyment of it and it’s good to get out there with your friends. And that’s where it all started.”
Was there much uptake with the pro teams?
“There were quite a few riders who were at the Tour Down Under who have the AirHubs and now we’ve got the whole Lotto-Soudal team riding them. That’s something that came out of André Greipel and Greg Henderson absolutely loving the product. I think it’s a really big step towards where we are going in the future, with professional riders riding with the hub because it’s their job to train hard and, essentially, this product makes it easier for them.”
We joked when we were teeing up this interview that the win in the NRS was effectively a result of just proving that your product worked…
“Yeah. [Laughs.] The NRS wasn’t something that we set out to achieve but I got a lot of late call-ups. And I think that’s a tribute to the product… if you’re always riding your bike – and enjoying it – then when you’re maximising the quality on the bike you can’t help but start performing well when you get the call-up.
“I was really excited to be able to get a few results and it’s actually pretty astounding.
“There were actually a few times there where I didn’t back myself and the team had thrown me in the deep end – and we’ve managed to come away with the win.”
It’s a fascinating story but I believed you to be a fascinating rider. You’re not your typical cyclist who has just come through and starts winning races and just continues that ad nauseam. You took a big hiatus to invent the AirHub. Do you feel like you’ve become a bike racer again – or are you in that limbo land that a lot of people in cycling in Australia are?
“That limbo land is a hard one to get out of.
“I started my junior years as a professional cyclist. I had the mindset of a professional cyclist.
“I came through the AIS system, ticking all the boxes and then racing in Europe with the Jayco-AIS team, winning a track world title along the way. But then it gets to a point when you realise that life is not just about cycling, there’s more to it.
“As cyclists, we’re quite self-centred and we consume a lot. [It’s] rare that we contribute back to the community; it’s all about ourselves and our training and you cut things out of your life in order to get that one percent extra gain.
“And, at that time, I really needed to take a step back and be like, ‘Look, I want more from this and I think I can deliver more to the world.’
“That’s when I wanted to start riding down two paths with the AirHub and also my training and racing.”
Photo courtesy of Neil Walker.
The deal with IsoWhey-SwissWellness, when did that come about? Was it mid-season?
“I can actually remember the conversation I had with Andrew [Christie-Johnson, the team owner] over the fence at the Oceania championships in March.
“It’s always a bit daunting when you’re asking a well developed team, ‘Oh, hey have you got a ride for me?’ So it was a bit awkward when I asked the question.
“What I asked him was, ‘Do you have any room for me in Belgium because I heard you’re going over there later in the season?’ And they did. But part of the deal was that I’d lead out Scott Sunderland in the Tour of Korea and the Tour of China and I’d get a ride.
“So that was the main focus of the year, to do my job for Scott and get him up for a few wins and then head over to Belgium. Everything that came beyond that was great.”
I’ve seen the press releases but do you feel like there is prestige in winning the title of the NRS?
“I does. It takes a while to sink in. Like when you’re in the thick of it, you go into races and you’re giving it your best – and you try and win. But it’s not until later that you realise that winning the domestic season in Australia is actually a pretty big deal.
“There’s quite a few good names on that list of who have won it in the past…
“It means that you’ve been able to perform consistently over quite a number of races.”
I think one of the results with the most potential for publicity was Nathan Elliott’s double at the Melbourne to Warrnambool (first in 2016 and 2017). He is an outstanding rider. I don’t know if he got the coverage he quite deserved. Can you just give us a little [overview]? We’ve talked about you but let’s have a chat about Nathan and his contribution to the domestic scene. Is he someone who could go on to bigger and better things?
“Nathan is a really interesting rider. He didn’t have too many results this year, I think [The ‘Warnie’] was his biggest. But to win the same race back-to-back – and something so chaotic like that – is absolutely incredible.
“The guy spend, I think, the first 200km in the break and then he came back to the bunch for 30- or 40-odd kilometres before he took off in the finish. And to do that under such tough conditions is pretty impressive.
“Talking about Nathan internationally, he was one of the guys that got our first high result over in Belgium… it’s [a race] called IWT, I think it was a 1.1. And he was our highest finisher in that, actually getting to the end of these 200km cobbled races. There was probably about 50km of cobbles in the last 150km of this race and Nathan managed to get through it well, and above a lot of other riders who pulled out before him.
“There’s a lot of dept there and he’s a guy to watch out for in the longer races.”
Is he indicative of the domestic scene as we see it in 2017…? Huge potential, and being well supported by a team like IsoWhey, where they’re a bit uncertain on what comes next?
“Well, I wouldn’t say it about Nathan specifically but there’s a lot of guys out there who get to a point of, ‘Well, what comes next?’ And that’s the big question.
“From my year in the AIS, under-23s Jayco-AIS, there were quite a lot of guys who either stepped up to WorldTour or you drop out.
“I think we had one or two guys step up… Jay McCarthy stepped up and almost everyone else fell out because there’s nothing really to go back to.
“You can race the domestic scene and unless people respect that – and respect the difficulty of the racing – and it gets the publicity and media it deserves, then people don’t see the point in committing so much effort and so much training to the national scene when it’s actually quite impressive racing…”
I guess that’s just the nature of sport isn’t it? You’re doing it because you enjoy it, not necessarily because you’re going to go on and make a career out of it. I wonder if your successes this year came from the fact that you were a little more liberated. The result wasn’t the end goal, it was the process that was…
“It’s a mindset that is sustainable and that’s the mindset I’ve had to hold all year. There’s times I can get a little bit too excited about training and too stressed about what I’m doing on the bike. And it starts to take away from my time at work and the other projects I’ve got going on. And I’ve really got to balance the two.
“I’m like, ‘Michael, you work a full-time job. The bike riding is great. But you’ve got to focus. You’ve got to get your work done so you can go ride your bike.’
“And it’s been quite refreshing actually because I’ve seen it so many times where I get caught up in the racing and the training and it’s unhealthy.”
So your full-time job is the AirHub project?
Okay. So it still means that when you’re riding your bike, it’s R&D anyway.
“Yeah, it does. There’s a lot of R&D going on – and testing and training and stuff like that. But you’ve got to keep aware that if you get too caught up in the racing stuff, you can start trying to search for one-percenters but it’s not a one-percenter game.
“You’ve got to put yourself in an environment where you’re going to succeed. You’ve got to get yourself a good team or a good group of friend who you train with so when you go training it’s not a sacrifice – it’s because you love doing it.
“If you get too caught up with it, it starts to become a drag to go training. And that’s not healthy.”
Freiberg on his way to the omnium world title in 2011.
Photo: Yuzuru Sunada
I know you as a bit of a thinker – and we’ll get some of your other developments in a moment – but if you had held the reins of cycling, let’s say in Australia, let’s not consider the international calendar yet, what would you do to raise its popularity. Or, I guess, give it a little bit more of a healthy future?
“That’s an interesting one.
“I know this could be published worldwide, so I have to be careful what I say, but I think it’s important to get to build the culture. And I see that with some of the stuff that CA is starting to do now.
“I noticed that there was a big cut to the investment in the development programs and the institute programs. But I’d actually like to see it go back into more of marketing [and] publicity.
“While it’s great to give an allocation of, say, five grand to riders in the institute[s], it’s much more important to inspire parents because the parents are going to invest 10 times that amount of money in the career of a cyclist. And they’re going to allow their son or their daughter to sacrifice what people would see as, ‘Oh, why haven’t you got a job yet?’ Or, ‘Why haven’t you got a degree?’ Or why don’t you have this, or what don’t you have that?
“A lot of people drop out because of the social expectations of, ‘Well, you should be doing this…’ or ‘You should be doing that…’ or ‘You’re dedicating too much of your time to this sport…’
“Whereas in Belgium and [places] like that, people work a trade and they race a bike and they’re able to balance the two because that’s socially acceptable.
“So if we see a bit of a shift in the perceptions of the people, the family, and society, we’re going to be able to develop a stronger culture who think it’s okay to ride and to race and to train and to be healthy and fit – and to invest that amount of time into being happy and riding a bike.”
Exactly. First comes the love, second comes the success… I suppose.
“Yeah because, at the end of the day, you can’t pin your hopes and dreams on success because success is not going to get you there.
“You can wish all you want to be a good athlete. Or you can wish all you want to be successful in business. But it’s about the steps. It’s about checking the boxes, going through the process and putting yourself in a position where it happens automatically. You can’t force being a good athlete, you’ve got to do the training and you’ve got to have the support people and that’s what you’ve got to get right before you can expect to win gold medals.”
I know plenty of people from the national team but I know a couple who have been ostracised for various reasons. When you were part of the national program in 2011, for example – when you won the omnium at the world championships – did you always feel part of the family?
“Ah. Yes and no.”
– End part one. –
Part two: “200mm cranks…”
– Interview by Rob Arnold