Two months since his return to racing, on the eve before the big test, the US Pro Time Trial, Tom Zirbel (Jamis/Sutter Home) was relaxed and ready. Zirbel had been suspended for two years by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) after testing positive for the steroid DHEA. He accepted the ban but continues to maintain his innocence. In March, USADA reduced his sentence by six months after Zirbel provided assistance in two separate anti-doping cases.
Last time, he raced in Greenville, Zirbel finished second at the 2009 USPRO Time Trial Championships and followed that up with a fourth place at the World TT Championships. He was subsequently stripped of those results as part of his suspension.
Once the ban was lifted, after a few local races Zirbel guest-rode with Hotel San Jose/ACME for the SRAM Tour of the Gila where he finished 6th in the time trial after fighting a mechanical the day before.
He then joined the Jamis/Sutter Home team and made the Amgen Tour of California roster. Disaster struck at the Solvang TT when a slipping seatpost forced him off his bike for an adjustment. Zirbel rebounded on the next stage, the Queen stage with the finish atop Mt Baldy when he finished 23rd, the second highest placed domestic rider just behind his teammate Luis Amaran.
After a few days of rest at home in Colorado, the 32-year old rider made his way to Greenville, SC where he sat down on Friday late afternoon to answer questions. Earlier that day, he had been out on his TT bike.
Are you ready for the US Pro Time Trial?
I feel pretty relaxed right now. It’s been a bit of a scramble since the Tour of California, getting the bike all dialed in, spending some more time on it and everything just came together today. I’m feeling good, I’m feeling confident. My legs are definitely blocked up today, I haven’t been riding much since California.
You had two time trials since your return, one at Gila and the Tour of California.
I did a local one coming back.
How did the Gila TT go for you?
Not well. I was having bike issues again, just I should not be allowed to touch bikes basically (laughs), is what the problem was. The shifting was really bad, and then also fitness. Just coming day 3 and the day before I had had that mechanical, 50 miles on a 58-cm bike, or whatever it was, that wasn’t ideal prep for a TT. But yeah, a little hard effort in.
And what happened at the California time trial?
The seatpost slipped. I got about 6 K[ilometer] and I thought I felt something, I was like ‘oh, oh’, was that what I thought it was and then 10 seconds later, boom it happens again and again. I had to get off my bike and got it taken care of and then Seba said ‘just cruise it’. So I went about 85% at that point, it was not satisfactory.
How devastating was that?
We just put too much pressure, I put too much pressure on myself, I wanted to perform well for Jamis/Sutter Home, they had worked so hard to get me there and that was kind of the goal, to get a good result there so I was bummed. But you know, I’m pretty good at putting things in perspective now (laughs).
Then the next day, you had a great ride up Mt Baldy.
Yeah thanks. I was happy to be able to help Luis, just be there for the team, show that I had some fitness, a lot of fitness.
That was a tough day.
It was. I had a rest day the day before (laughs). I’m sure that contributed to it.
What does it mean for you to see that Mt Baldy result. How do you feel now fitness-wise?
Like I said, I haven’t tested the legs out at all this week. I wanted to make sure that I gave them a lot of time to rest. I did some pseudo-efforts throughout the week just to see how the position feels but yeah, I have to keep reminding myself that I’m really fit right now. I need to go into tomorrow with confidence, even though I haven’t had a good TT result this year, I know what I’m capable of. I psych myself out sometimes, ‘oh these guys are going so well’. ‘No come on’.
You mentioned that you got a new TT bike after Gila. How much do you work on the bike to get the right position which is important?
It is important. Measurements are pretty similar to what I was riding for BISSELL. The biggest thing is, honestly, the saddle. Working in a different saddle takes time so the measurements are always going to be slightly different so it’s figuring out how different they are, it’s not that big deal. I’m pretty easy, as long as the seatpost doesn’t slip too much, I’m fine.
How has it been coming back this past month?
It’s gone well, everyone has been very welcoming. It’s cool. At California, I ran into a lot of people, some of whom I didn’t know knew who I was, a lot of people were very supportive, that’s nice.
What did you learn about yourself through that whole ordeal? Do you think you changed?
Unfortunately it changed me a lot, in the sense that I’ll never let cycling hurt me like that again. Because, I’m just a survival mechanism, I’m always going to have a little defense up, so that’s kind of a negative thing. I learned that I do love the sport. I’m happy that I was able to separate what happened to me with the sport of cycling because I do love cycling. I thought it would be easier to be like ‘I don’t need this, let’s do something else’, but it’s a cool sport. I just love learning something every time I go out and race my bike, I’m still getting better, I still have a ton to learn. It’s just fun to me, it’s exciting, I enjoy it so as long as I’m able to, I’ll do it.
Have your ambitions changed? You’re not that old.
(laughs) I’m getting old. I’ve got seven years before I can win the Tour of California.
To be the oldest man winning Tour of California, it’s eight years. (laughs)
(laughs) So I’m not too concerned with age. I like it.
Take me through your preparation for Saturday’s TT.
Tomorrow, I might hop on the trainer in the morning, just to get the blood moving and just to get rid of the nerves. It’s always nice to just sweat a little bit, then you’re a little more relaxed for the rest of the day, so I might do that. Just get myself plenty of time.
You’ve done this course before, do you go through it in your head before?
I’m not going to do that anymore (laughs). I probably went through it 200 times in 2009, the night before, I probably slept two or three hours. So I’m actually much more relaxed. I’m just going to go as hard as I can.
Our conversation then shifted to his suspension.
I don’t know what happened but it was either, supplement contamination, food contamination or the st is bunk. Or someone spiked my sample (chuckles), there’s that too but…. You can make your own determination on what seems the most plausible but I still don’t know, I’m still working on it, not actively but I have plans to pursue more information about happened, more testing.
You’re back to racing and back to testing. How scary is it since you don’t know what happened?
It’s scary but I know what I do and don’t do. It goes back to how I’ve changed, it’s scary but if it ends, it ends. It was an awful, awful time. For the first three months there, I was not happy, that’s just not me. So I’m just not going to let it come to that again. I’ve changed some habits, I’ll never knowingly take a supplement again while I’m competing.
So you’re not taking any supplements?
The thing about that, some things are under different regulations. To be a dietary supplement, it’s under less regulation. Products like Cliff shots, or goo shots, most of those are under FDA regulation so they have stricter regulation. I’m not saying that they can’t be contaminated, because I don’t know that. I guess I mean that I’m not taking significant risks if I take something under FDA regulation, the way I understand it and I still don’t know completely.
It’s great to see Zirbel racing again.