The 2008 road season is coming to a close, and with it, comes time of looking back and thinking about the future. I caught up with 6′ 4″, 194-pound Tom Zirbel of the Bissell Pro Cycling Team on the eve of the Tour of Missouri where we chatted about his season and his wish to go “race the best and biggest races” in Europe.
Returning from an almost aborted 2007 season due to a blood clot, his third season as a professional started off strong for the 29-year old rider nicknamed Thor (but I prefer Zirbelicious). In May, he was leading the Tour of the Gila when he crashed and broke his collarbone amongst other injuries and had to take a break to recover. The time trial specialist came back to win the Tour of Elk Grove prologue, the Tour of Utah time trial and topped it off with a second place finish, just 5 seconds behind winner David Zabriskie (Garmin-Chipotle) in the US Pro Time Trial Championship.
You were coming on strong this year and then crashed at Gila and broke your collarbone.
Tom: Collarbone, three ribs and a hand.
And then, you recovered and came back strong again. How do you handle all that?
Tom: I was just kind of feeling sorry for myself the other day, I’m feeling tired, I can tell it’s been a long season, the break I had was ‘the breaks I had’. It was just after Gila, that was my break trying to recover from those broken bones, it wasn’t like a true restful break. I’m starting to feel the effects of a long season but it’s a good thing that this [Tour of Missouri] is a big race, that I’ve never done it and I’m excited about it, the hard rolling stages suit riders like us. I’m just trying to suck it up and come in with a good attitude and put in my seven days of racing and go out with a bang.
Last year, you had the blood clot, and now this year, the crash at Gila.
Tom: It was no one’s fault that I overcooked a turn and crashed into a pile of rocks. There’s no one to blame, this stuff happens in this sport, you never know when the next crash or injury is going to happen which is why you have to take the opportunities when they come.
Then you came to Utah, won the last stage, the time trial and then finished second at US Pro TT. From what I’ve read you were disappointed with that result, was it harder to be just 5 seconds from the winner as opposed to a bigger gap?
Tom: No, definitely not. I was happy to be right there, I would have been disappointed if I wasn’t. I knew it was going to be close, I pictured myself and I had the confidence that I was going to be the one on top, it just goes back to seizing your opportunities. I might never have that opportunity again so it’s just disappointing that it was there for me and I came out short this time. In the whole scheme of things, it was a step up for me, being on the podium, I’ve never done that
People were starting to ask who is Tom Zirbel.
Tom: (laughs) It is surprising. If you follow the domestic scene, I am well known but my mother was saying, [while] trying to follow the race live, that [commentator] Nathan O’Neill had no idea who I was. People lose sight of domestic racing.
What do you think should be done to get domestic racing talked about more?
Tom: These races [like Tour of Missouri] help. We don’t have the opportunity to race against the Europeans that often, so races like Tour of Missouri, Tour of California, Georgia, Philly Week, the races where we have opportunities. I’m really not too concerned with how I’m viewed outside the domestic peloton, just because Zabriskie is one of the best in the world doesn’t mean I shouldn’t beat him, if I’m riding well.
This is your third year of pro racing, do you think you’ve hit your prime?
Tom: It’s my third year but I call it my second year because I lost so much time last year with the blood clots, plus I came into the sport really late. I feel I’m going to improve physically for the next few years, and just learning the game of cycling, all the strategies and conserving energy. These things [can] all improve if I wanted to for the next ten years. I think I have a lot more to give to the sport, my body is going to continue to improve.
What are you looking to improve specifically? Is it focusing on your time trial skills still?
Tom: If we are talking about aspirations of going to Europe, that’s going to be my ticket over there. I need to keep focusing on my time trial. I have huge weaknesses with accelerations, with one and two minute power, positioning obviously I have problems with, just everything so… I still need to focus on my time trial but those are the things I need to improve, and I don’t spend enough time on those.
You mentioned Europe, are you interested in racing in Europe?
Tom: I am. I would be selling myself short if I didn’t try and take the next step, it may be that I’m not cut out for it but I’m going to try and if I get a shot and if it’s a good situation for me with a team that I trust, I would take it.
So what’s the plan for next year then, are you still with Bissell?
Tom: I don’t know yet, I will know in a couple of weeks. I will probably be with Bissell but I’m keeping options open. I will have a better idea in two or three weeks time. I would love to come back with Bissell, I love these guys.
So you’re being courted by other teams?
Tom: I guess courted would be a good way to say it. Just keeping the options open because of the Europe thing, if I race domestically it will be with Bissell.
How do you plan on improving your race tactics, positioning? Is it by doing it?
Tom: Yeah. If you look at my race history, in 2005 I had 50 races, all of them locally and one NRC, my first NRC race. In 2006, I had a full NRC season, 2007 was a bust. In 2008, I’ve gotten a pretty full schedule, this is what would you call it, maybe my third year racing, so a lot of races.
Bissell was bigger this year with more experienced riders, did it help to have these guys like Burke Swindlehurst on the team?
Tom: I love racing with Burke, I think he’s a great guy, I learned a lot from him this year and I’d like to continue to learn form him next year, how to win races you know, he’s very experienced. This year was exactly what we hoped it would be, just from the standpoint that we have so many leaders on the team, different people stepping up at different time, and it took a lot of pressure of Ben Jacques-Maynes and it allowed everybody to have their opportunity to shine. That just makes for a fun year when you have up and down line up, everyone contributing.
Were you called upon to be a leader? Were you a protected guy during a race?
Tom: Gila when I had the leader’s jersey. Tour of Elk Grove.
How does it feel to be a protected rider? Do you approach the race differently?
Tom: I don’t know how to answer that because a lot of times I feel that I could be the man. [At] Cascade [Cycling Classic], I found myself as the protected rider after getting in the break. I just love my team so much and I know that they are so strong that there is that added pressure of both wanting to perform for them and knowing that there are two or three other guys that can do the job. It’s kind of an honor to be a team leader, that’s how I look at it but there is definitely a lot of stress involved and I know I have a long way to go before I am completely comfortable in that situation just from the positioning stand point and things of that nature. It helped having teammates who were so experienced and surrounded me and kept me out of trouble.
Given that it’s a strong team, was there a time that you didn’t speak up to say that had the legs?
Tom: There are so few races that really, really suit my abilities in the US. It has to be a hard race but not too hard, you can’t have a 20 k[ilometer] climb at 8 percent, I probably won’t make it up with the top ten guys so a race like Cascade is about the limit of my climbing ability and I wasn’t climbing well that week so it didn’t work out in the end but we had a shot for second on GC and we took it, it just didn’t work out. Like I said, that’s another reason I would like to go to Europe because the races here are either bunch sprints or Burke races (laughs), and it might be that it’s the same way in Europe but I know there are a lot of hard, hard races, the harder the better for me.
So which races do you think would be good for you in Europe?
Tom: I wouldn’t be able to get over the Pyrenees and the Alps with those guys but the Classics, they’re just hard.
So the one-day hard races or the week-long stage races?
Tom: All. I just want to get my feet wet.
What do you think of racing in bad weather?
Tom: I think I’d be better off than a lot of the little squirts. In California, stage 4, that was absolutely miserable but when I was done, there were people that surrounded me that were worse off than I was. I don’t know if that’s a function of being heavier or just more hardy (laughs) I don’t know. I just want to try it, I want to race the best and biggest races in the world and see how I stack up.
That means leaving the US.
Tom: That’s the hard thing to deal with, not being around here. I have such a great support system, friends and family and everything. (pauses) Now is the time you know.