Tom Zirbel Interview: Building back up after a long time out
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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tom Zirbel Interview: Building back up after a long time out

by Shane Stokes at 10:21 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews, Doping
New team plus early end to USADA suspension helps American start over

Tom ZirbelAfter over a year and a half away from racing, US time trial specialist Tom Zirbel’s comeback is gathering momentum. The 32 year old was given a green light to return to competition one month ago, and since then has done a number of local events. He is currently competing in the higher-level Tour of the Gila, and showed solid form there when he was an early leader and placed sixth in Friday’s time trial.

Significantly, that TT ride coincided with an announcement that he had secured a contract to race with the Jamis/Sutter Home team for the remainder of the season. The team will ride the Tour of California, and will try to secure a place for him in the race.

Zirbel incurred a two year ban when he tested positive for DHEA at the 2009 US Pro TT championships, where he took second. He finished fourth in the world time trial championships before the result became known, and was subsequently stripped of those results as well as being handed a two year ban.

He has maintained his innocence from that point, and sought to fight the charges. Without proof of how the positive test occurred, though, USADA handed him a two year sanction.

That 24 month suspension was reduced by six months recently after Zirbel helped the agency in relation to two other cases. It enabled him to return to racing much earlier than anticipated, and he is now trying to make up for lost time. He continues to maintain that he did nothing wrong.

The Iowan spoke to VeloNation twice in the past two weeks, most recently yesterday. He talked about his satisfaction with his new team, his confidence that his form will improve towards his goal of the US nationals, the possibility that he could ride the Tour of California, his interaction with USADA plus his motivation to return to Europe and chase big results in the second phase of his career.


VeloNation: It's been announced that you had landed a deal with the Jamis/Sutter Home team for the rest of the season. Are you happy with that?

Tom Zirbel: Definitely, I think it is going to be a good fit. It is a relatively small group of guys, and they seem like really hard workers. They get big results with no frills…I guess I’d put it that way.

VN: There is some speculation that you could ride California, given that the team has a slot on the race. You weren’t listed on the provisional roster submitted to the organisers; do you think it’s likely that you could get a place in the race?

TZ: I think it is a little early to tell, but I am going to prepare myself like I am going to be on the start line. I only have two weeks. I need to be careful not to do too much, but I think I can make a big jump in fitness in two weeks.

VN: How have you felt in Gila?

TZ: I felt alright the first day. The second day I had some bad luck – my derailleur hanger broke. I actually got a bike change from Jamis, but it was actually a bike that was way too small for me. I rode the last 60 miles with a couple of other guys, just trying to make the time cut. It definitely wasn’t the ideal prep for today, but looking ahead it was a good fitness builder. I was just happy to be able to start today.

VN: So you feel that today’s result would have been better had you not had the issues yesterday?

TZ: Hard to tell, but I would assume it would go a little better. Riding a bike that doesn’t fit you for sixty miles isn’t the best on your legs…my back, my arms and my neck were all kind of sore. But everyone has got their issues, so it is kind of hard to make excuses like that. I think it had more to it just being day three of a stage race, and not having the endurance in my legs as yet.

Tom ZirbelVN: What is your target for the remainder of the race?

TZ: My goal was to have a good result today, and also to finish the race…to work hard every day to build that fitness for later in the season. I am just going to work hard and try to help Team Hotel San Jose as much as I can for this event. I’ll then look forward to helping Jamis/Sutter Home.

VN: It seems that things are moving forward for you…

TZ: Yes, I definitely didn’t expect to be in the mix for California, so that was a surprise. It is a little scary at the same time…

VN: You were originally expected to be sidelined for several more months, but USADA then decided to reduce your ban and enable you to race again. What have you been doing since that decision?

TZ: It was a kind of a crazy few weeks, for sure, with the news breaking and just trying to scramble to find a spot on a team that would be a good fit. But mostly I’ve just been continuing to coach athletes, because that has been my job for the last year. I’ve also been getting out to train as much as I can.

VN: You did some local racing before Gila, which helped you get some racing shape…

TZ: Yeah, you know it’s exciting to get out there at any level. We are lucky to have a very high level of racing in Colorado, so it’s good competition. I just have been enjoying it, for sure.

VN: How do you feel fitness-wise - are you very far off from what you were?

TZ: No, I’m not too far. My time-trialing is good right now. I think the efforts of an hour or less are good. I just don’t have the endurance in my legs right now. So, just being able to do it hour after hour, it’s just not there. I just need to spend more time on the bike, log some hours in the saddle and I think I’ll be fine.

I was actually pleasantly surprised with the time-trialling fitness and the criterium fitness for these shorter races.

VN: In your time away from racing, had you been doing much on the bike?

TZ: You know, I would ride for fun, I was doing other things – I was running, hiking, doing cross-training type things. But I went through a period there when I was pretty upset with the bike (laughs), so I didn’t want to ride much. Then I came back to the conclusion that I love riding my bike and I would definitely ride it as much as I could.

I’ve just been getting consistent training in, but I was definitely out there for a while.

VN: Looking back on what happened, there’s been some talk that a supplement might have been responsible for the positive test...

TZ: I would say it is the most likely cause but as I haven’t been able to scientifically prove it, I’m not going out and saying that absolutely it was supplement contamination. I guess I just don’t know. I don’t trust the test a hundred percent, the analysis that they did.

But then you know, I guess it’s possible that it came from just a natural food source…natural in a sense that it was under FDA Approval and not considered a dietary supplement.

There are a couple of possibilities. The only thing I’m certain of is that I didn’t knowingly put something in my body that was illegal.

Tom ZirbelVN: The ban was reduced from two years to eighteen months. Were you surprised by that, or did you have any indications that that was coming?

TZ: Yeah, we have been talking since December of 2010, and I had some lawyers helping me from a pro bono law programme. They are the ones who convinced me to use this information that USADA wanted to my advantage, so I ended up putting them in touch with the person that helped them.

It was a surprise. I have had this innate distrust of USADA, so for them to come through as they promised was a pleasant surprise. But at the same time I didn’t feel like I deserved a reduction on those terms, because it really had nothing to do with me. This whole situation is kind of laughable. I mean these cases are completely separate from me.

VN: When you say you have a distrust of USADA, do you feel that they didn’t do things correctly in the way that this unfolded?

TZ: Oh no, I mean, it’s in the rule book that they can reduce their suspension for substantial assistance from the athlete. But I just think it’s funny, because it has nothing to do with me. It would be a lot better if they were reducing it because they knew I wasn’t a cheater and they thought the punishment was far too harsh for what actually took place, but that’s not how the world works.

I’m happy to be racing again, but I certainly didn’t feel I deserved a reduction based on the stated terms.

VN: Do you mean that you feel you deserved a reduction based on original terms?

TZ: Yes.

VN: I read in an interview that you kind of suggested that this was a way for USADA to put things right, without admitting that they were perhaps a little harsh. Is that correct?

TZ: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s me wishing that was the case. I think the reality is that I just saved them money and allowed them to win a case. Well, potentially two cases.

Of course I would like to think that they ultimately know that it was contamination, or whatever it was…that it wasn’t with my knowing.

They are completely consistent, that one thing you can say about them. So, without actual evidence they are going to assume the worst in every situation.

VN: You’ve been racing in Gila…do you think you have enough time to get into shape for the nationals?

TZ: I think so. I don’t think I’ll be ready for the road race but the time trail will be different. I’m honestly just a couple of percentage points away from being top form. So things are progressing well, I’m confident in my TT, it’s just the endurance that is lacking.

Anyway, I expect to be really fit by that time. I just need to keep working hard in these next few weeks.

VN: Do you think a medal is a realistic target for the Nationals?

TZ: If I’d to be honest, I would be disappointed if I didn’t get a medal. I believe in myself, I should be up there.

VN: You were on the verge of a contract with Garmin, so have you had any contact with them with the view to possibly racing there in 2012?

TZ: Well…I haven’t directly talked to them, but I think my job now is to show that I’m still capable and then I think I’ll have more ability to go in front of teams and ask for a spot or tell them that I deserve a spot. It’s been a year and a half, you know how this sport is. You are as good as your last result, so…my last result was 2009, so I just need to prove myself again.

VN: Looking back, how do you feel about this whole experience?

TZ: I’ve been trying to take it in stride. I definitely went through a period when I was pretty depressed about things, kind of feeling like a victim and all that, but right now I’m just trying to move on.

I’m definitely motived to see how far I can go and that’s sort of why I made a choice to try to go to Europe again. I know it’s the hard road, I know that I can do this domestic racing here and be happy and do well, but I just want to challenge myself with the hardest races in the world.

I definitely want to push it as far as I can. And just keep fighting towards that goal, as long as I can and as long as I’m still loving it…


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