Michael Freiberg Q&A: On being left off the UniSA team for Tour Down Under

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It’s been a tumultuous few days for Michael Freiberg (Pro Racing Sunshine Coast). On Sunday he stunned rivals and onlookers alike when he won the 2019 Australian road title with a gutsy ride around Mt. Buninyong. He said after that win that he was “hopeful” his ride had earned him a spot on the UniSA-Australia National team for the Tour Down Under.

But in the days since, it’s become clear that, controversially, that won’t happen.

In Cycling Australia’s words, the UniSA-Australia spot was reserved for “up and coming riders” to give them the “opportunity to visibly perform on a WorldTour stage.” In line with that policy, the UniSA-Australia spot will go to Freiberg’s 21-year-old teammate Michael Potter, runner-up in the U23 Nationals road race and bronze medalist in the same race in 2018.

In the time since Cycling Australia’s announcement, there’s been an outpouring of public support for Freiberg, with nearly 2,500 people signing a petition calling for the 28-year-old’s inclusion in the team. CyclingTips caught up with Freiberg to get his reaction to the decision.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for fluency.

CyclingTips: It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster for you over the past few days. How are you faring?

Michael Freiberg: It’s been a testing couple of days actually. I’ve been fighting for this spot at the Tour Down Under for the past, what, 12 to 18 months now? Last year we got caught up in that Whereabouts debacle where I was fit, I was ready to go, and then the team [Bennelong-SwissWellness] goes ‘Yeah, CA hasn’t put anyone on the list.’ And the building came crashing down.

[In 2018, a handful of riders missed out on TDU spots because they weren’t part of the sport’s “Registered Testing Pool” for anti-doping. This requirement wasn’t communicated to the riders early enough for them to be in the testing pool for the necessary six weeks.]

So then we planned the season around Nationals again and Tour Down Under, ticked the boxes, got myself on the Whereabouts testing list. I called up the UCI because CA [Cycling Australia] wasn’t having a bar of it, and the UCI reactivated my account from when I was the world champion in 2011 and then towards the Olympic Games in 2012. So I ticked that box.

[Freiberg won the omnium world title in 2011 but Cycling Australia opted not to select him for the 2012 Track World Championships nor the 2012 London Olympics.]

And then I did everything physically possible to be fit and ready for the race and it turns out I had a good day and it’s still not good enough.

When you say you spoke to the UCI to reactivate your Whereabouts, is that because CA wouldn’t put you on it?

I was told that there’s only limited spots in the testing pool and so they wanted to give the limited spots to the U23 guys, and that was fine. That’s fair enough. I wouldn’t take no for an answer and I looked at the options and the UCI were willing to play ball because I’d already filled out the necessary paperwork back when I was racing on the world level and they put me on the list which is really nice.

Cycling Australia has told us that they informed National Road Series teams back in December that an U23 would get that spot on the UniSA-Australia squad. Did you come to Nationals knowing that even if you won you weren’t going to get the spot?

No, absolutely not. I let them know that I was going to be fit and ready and that I was coming. I communicated this a long way out to them and I kept them updated on my progress.

Somehow one spot stayed available and in the press release it listed that even if the winner of the elite or Under 23 race won they’d still have to be on the Whereabouts and I saw that as “If you’re on the Whereabouts and you’re elite or Under 23 and you win [the Nationals road race] well then maybe you’ve got the chance to race Tour Down Under”, as has been the way it’s happened for the last 15 years — they’ve always had the national champion at the Tour Down Under. [The Aussie national champion didn’t start Tour Down Under in 2007 (Darren Lapthorne), 2009 (Peter McDonald) and 2010 (Travis Meyer).]

And it just speaks volumes for the event. The national championships is the biggest one-day race on the entire calendar. I explained that to them and [Cycling Australia performance director] Simon Jones told me directly that the national championships … it’s only a national championships and it’s in January and the race would have suited me anyway. So he doesn’t seem to place very much value on the national championships which I think is a little bit out of touch with what the rest of the riders and the rest of the public feel.

You see Cameron Meyer’s face after the race — he put his heart and soul into winning the national championship in January as he’s done for the last 10 years. You ask people like Robbie McEwen or Simon Gerrans or any other winner, Luke Durbridge, Alex Edmondson, just how much a national championships in January means to them and they’ll tell you a very different story.

So it’s not just a little bike race in January, it is the bike race in January.

When we interviewed you after Sunday’s race you said you were “hopeful” that you would be racing TDU, and that there was just some “administration” that needed to happen. What did you actually think at that moment — did you think you’d be racing?

That’s the funny one actually: I was playing that down. I was giving CA the opportunity to release it first because I wholeheartedly believed that I had done everything I needed to do. There was no communication otherwise.

The precedent has been set for the last 15 years that the first non-pro or even the winner of the national road race would get the spot. I thought I’d definitely be racing. I was on the Whereabouts, I’d been on the Whereabouts for a very long time, I’d let the selection committee know that this was a target event of mine and that I would be one of the best non-professional athletes there and that I would deserve that spot.

There was no communication of any selection policy that said that the U23 would get that spot. I don’t know if you had been shown this policy or anyone else in the country has been shown this policy so it makes it really difficult for people who ride their bikes and are not part of the High Performance programme to step up.

[In response to a request for comment, Cycling Australia provided CyclingTips with a copy of an email dated December 3, 2018 in which Cycling Australia laid out the selection criteria for this summer’s National teams. It says both that “Riders have to be on an upward trajectory and U23” and that “These selections will be made with absolute discretion”. CyclingTips has been told that email was sent to state CEOs, the state institutes, and all NRS teams.]

It makes it hard for the underdog to get a chance. And these are people’s lives at stake. I’ve raced unpaid for three years now and I’ve fought for everything I’ve got and it’s about grit and moving forward and believing in yourself. And then when it does happen — because you’ve done the work — and then it gets taken away from you, and your chances of earning a salary, earning a living, paying your rent, eating food, is taken away from you, it’s really difficult.

These are people’s lives you’re playing with. So it’s really rough on CA’s part for them to position things the way they have.

How have the last few days played out? Have you just been pleading your case with CA and they’ve refused to budge?

Yes, basically. There’s a lot of different ways to look at how to select me for Tour Down Under. You look at the guys who are in the BridgeLane team — I’ve been teammates with quite a few of them now for the last two years and we worked very well as a unit.

Chris Harper is by far one of the best climbers in the southern hemisphere and he demonstrated that he’s in form on the weekend. I’ve been delivering him to the bottom of climbs and helping him navigate the big bunches for a couple years now and that would be my role if I went into the team. It would be about delivering Chris Harper and Jason Lea and the rest of the boys there into the position to win and to be selected [for a WorldTour team].

It’s not just about me when it comes to this race; it’s about the whole team, lifting them up and putting these boys on the world stage. I think that’s really the ethos behind having the national team included in the Santos Tour Down Under — this type of event doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world and it’s been the mainstay of the development of Australian riders for the last 15 years: being able to step up, show your stuff.

You see Chris Hamilton went top 10 on Willunga and then got picked up straight away [Hamilton finished 11th on Willunga Hill while racing for UniSA-Australia in 2016. He signed with Sunweb for the 2017 season onwards.]. And so my job would be to deliver Chris Harper into the Willunga climb and get him up there top 10 or Willunga and get him a pro contract because he deserves it. And that may be a bit difficult without my selection in that team.

Was that your argument to CA?

That had been raised by the director on the road, Andrew Christie-Johnston, many times, but it’s fallen on deaf ears because they want to stick to the selection document that some people may have seen, but I certainly didn’t see it. They want to stick hard to that.

And they’re not going to give me a discretionary selection because … it was said to me multiple times over two days, Simon Jones has absolutely no faith in my ability to make it to the WorldTour level in the next two years and that’s why he’s not going to give me discretionary selection.

It must be hard to hear that.

It’s very hard to hear that when you put your whole life into becoming a professional athlete and someone says that to your face. So that’s quite hard. But I mean this is the guy that told Mark Cavendish that he’d be no good and that’s written in Mark Cavendish’s book. So he has been wrong before.

You must be heartened by how much support you’ve had publicly though?

Yeah, it’s so beautiful. And that’s what sport is. What do they say: don’t mess with people’s sport or religion? There’s just so much passion out there and we do it for the fans and for those moments that you cherish for the rest of your life.

And that’s why people ride their bikes, for those few little moments you can look back on and that’s what they love about it and that’s why in the public view it’s a little unjust to be the best bike rider in the country in the last few days and then be told “no sorry, you’re not good enough.”

You’ll get the chance to race in the national colours for Cadel’s Race. Are you excited about that? Do you see that as a silver lining of sorts?

Yeah absolutely. I mean, it’s a different sort of race and it’s much of a consolation prize. I mean, if I wasn’t worthy to be selected for Tour Down Under or didn’t meet the selection criteria for Down Under, why would I meet that same selection criteria for Cadel Evans’ race?

But I think they’re being nice and throwing me a bone and I’m going to have to take that and use it to the best of my ability because it’s the only shot I’ve got.

I suppose the irony of this is that if you’d stayed with BridgeLane this year, you’d probably be going to TDU, right?

Yeah, absolutely. But the way things happen, teams change, direction changes. With the Pro Racing Sunshine Coast guys we’ve got a really good thing going — we’re going to be racing in Japan and Europe and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve got some really good support out of these guys.

Ben Kersten [former Commonwealth Games gold medalist on the track and founder/director of Pro Team Sunshine Coast] came to me maybe three or four years ago at the Tour Down Under actually and said “Mate, I’ve got an idea — I’m going to start a pro racing team. It’s going to be based out of the Sunshine Coast and it’s going to be fantastic.” So it’s something I’ve had my eye on for quite awhile now.

What made you move there? Was it because he’d tapped you on the shoulder back then or because Andrew Christie-Johnston seemed to be stepping away from Bennelong/BridgeLane?

With ACJ moving on that was the main thing where I had to sit down and have a think. ACJ’s been one of the best sports directors in the country and probably around the world for the last 10-15 years and he’s turned out some absolute talent like Richie Porte … the list goes on and on and on. So it’s been absolutely outstanding having him involved and really moulding my career and getting me to the point where we can do something like this.

He’s been really big in developing Australian talent and he got me to win the National Road Series in 2017. We’ve raced in China, we developed my skills, and then we got me to a place where you can step up and win the national championships against WorldTour guys in January and they’re so fit and it’s just absolutely incredible.

Where to now from here? It still sounds like you’re super-motivated to make it to the WorldTour?

Yeah, absolutely. I train with Luke Durbridge, Cameron Meyer, Travis Meyer back in Perth virtually every day — they’re my main training partners. And you go out and do the same work as them and you’ve been in Europe and you’ve raced similar races and now it’s just about working with the team and finding a contract and fitting in to a group that’ll get the results on the WorldTour level.

We proved it in races like Tour of China and stuff that we can mix it with the Pro Conti guys. We had a really successful season over there with the Bennelong guys — I think AJ [Anthony Giacoppo] got third on GC, I was sixth, a bucket-load of wins. And so we’re ready to step up. The engine’s there, the form’s there and so now it’s about discussing with the team and how I can help them improve their results … how I can fit into a team.

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