Tom Zirbel has been a fixture in the US domestic cycling scene for nearly a decade, but the 37-year-old who won the US time trial championship in 2013 told Cyclingnews recently that 2016 will be his final season in the pro peloton.
Zirbel started his career in 2006 with the Priority Health team and stayed with the program, which morphed into Bissell Pro Cycling the following year, through 2009. Zirbel finished fourth in the UCI Time Trial World Championships in September of that year and then signed with Garmin's WorldTour team for 2010. But that all came crashing down when US Anti-doping Agency announced in December of 2009 that he had tested positive for DHEA in an anti-doping test at the US time trial championships that August.
Zirbel denied taking the substance knowingly but accepted a two-year ban and then announced his retirement. His ban was eventually reduced to 18 months after he assisted USADA in another investigation. Zirbel reversed his decision to retire, and in May of 2011 signed with Jamis-Sutter Home for the remainder of that season. He moved to Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies in 2012 and has remained with that team – now Rally Cycling – ever since.
Zirbel scored his only stars-and-stripes jersey in 2013 when he won the US time trial championship. During his career he has won stages at the Volta ao Alentejo, Tour of Utah, Tour of the Gila, Cascade Cycling Classic, Tour of Elk Grove, Nature Valley Grand Prix, Fitchburg Longsjo Classic and the Green Mountain Stage Race.
Cyclingnews caught up with Zirbel earlier this week at the Rally Cycling training camp along the Southern California coast in Oxnard.
Cyclingnews: How have things been going so far at team camp with the new teammates and the new sponsor.
Zirbel: It's still early but we had a nice ride today and everyone is getting along well.
CN: Were you at the previous camp in Arizona? It looks like the team had kind of a mini camp there.
Zirbel: Yeah, that was fun. I'd never been to Bisbee, and it's actually a pretty cool little town. The weather was a little bit colder, but we were able to ride every day. The one day that it snowed was our off day anyway, so some of us went and did a snow hike, which was a lot of fun. The roads aren't spectacular for riding, especially compared to here, but it was good base miles. We rode 100 miles almost every day. It was good for what Jonas wanted it to be.
CN: It seems like you're getting a pretty early start this year. Was that part of the reason for doing a camp like that?
Zirbel: With the early invites to Europe in February and March, those are hard races for everyone but especially us, racing at a higher level like that. So it's just good to get with your teammates earlier and form those bonds and do some hard training even earlier. It's still going to be hard, but maybe it won't be quite the shock to the system it would be if we just did one camp.
CN: This year will be your fifth with this program?
Zirbel: Yeah. Yeah (laughs).
CN: Time flies, eh?
Zirbel: Yeah. I was just thinking about that. Sometimes I still think of myself as a Bissell rider, but I've actually been with this team longer. This has become my home. I've been blessed with really good sponsors and really good people: riders, management and staff. It feels like home. Everyone really cares about the sport and promoting health for our sponsors. It makes it fun.
CN: You're 37 now?
Zirbel: Yeah, racing age 38.
CN: You're getting to that point now where you get the inevitable question: how may more years are you thinking about racing?
Zirbel: This is my last one.
CN: Have you announced that publicly yet?
Zirbel: Internally with the team they know. The last couple of years I've kind of been on the fence. I think the fitness is there most of the time, but it's just with the family it gets harder and harder to leave. My son just turned two today, so I missed that. Things like that are hard. So, yeah, I think it's time.
It's funny, since 2010 everything just feels like a bonus. I thought I was done. It was such a crummy way to go out, but I had had enough. It was just too painful. So this all is just a bonus. I've had some great years here, and I finally won the national championship in 2013. But it's just all the teammates that I've met, all the races we've shared. And we've got guys going to the WorldTour almost every year out of this program, so to be part of that in some small way is very rewarding. I like to be around great people and like a said, good sponsors.
CN: It's got to be cool to watch former teammates like what Mike Woods did last week at Tour Down Under.
Zirbel: Yeah. I've tried to stop being impressed by the things he can do (laughs). But, you know, we saw some of that at Algarve last year. He's something else, you know, and a great guy on top of it. There's no ego in that kid. He's a hard worker and just tenacious on the bike, but you get him off the bike and he's just someone you love to hang around.
CN: Going into your last season now after a successful career, what kind of motivation do you take in?
Zirbel: I think the most important thing for me was to come into the season ready, because you just build on that throughout the year. So I worked really hard to be diligent when I needed to be in December. So I think I'm in a good spot here. I would hate to finish my season, you know my last year, and just be mediocre. I think I still have some wins in me, and I'd still like to perform well at the nationals TT again, and like I said, just helping my teammates win is very rewarding. But the better I am on the bike, climbing and on the flats, the more I can help them.
CN: There are more young guys coming onto the team this year. That probably helps keep you motivated and feeling younger, just hanging out with them.
Zirbel: Yeah. Jonas does such a great job of attracting young talent every year, and this year is no different. We have some guys who are really strong. And then you have a guy like Danny Pate coming on with all that experience, which is going to make us that much better. So it's going to be a lot of fun, because we're not just going to be a TT team or a sprint team or a climbing team. It's going to be all of those things.
We perform best when everyone has their opportunities throughout the year. It's not just one guy. We take pride in our depth and passing the torch around. That's worked pretty well for us. Then there's no question. You never worry because you know your chance is coming. The guys can give 100 percent for whoever we're racing for, and it's definitely going to come around at some point. Even if it doesn't, we're close enough to be rewarding. When my teammates win it feels like my win.
CN: That's important for keeping the motivation high.
Zirbel: Yeah. When the level is this high, it's just those little tiny things like selling out for each other that makes the difference. It's not always brute strength that wins the race. That's what I love about this sport. I came from a running background, and that's how it's different. Running is more of a TT. It's almost a race against yourself, and trying to get the most out of yourself. But with cycling it's the tactics and teamwork that's paramount to overall success.
CN: Obviously winning another national championship would be a good way to go out. What other goals or targets do you have?
Zirbel: I haven't sat down and looked at the calendar too much, but just general goals of climbing better. I think I was climbing better earlier in my career, so I'd like to focus on that, you know, and to be there in groups of 30 to help my team finish off the win. And every domestic time trial I do I expect to win. I expect that out of myself, so I still want people to look at me as the guy to beat. I feel like that's how it should be. So I need to prepare myself for that and get to the point where I am the favourite in every TT.
And I think Tour of California has a TT this year that should favour me if it's the same one as a couple of years ago. It's pretty decent for me, so I'm sure that will be on my radar and I'd like to perform well on such a big stage.
CN: And Wiggins will be there, so you can test yourself against him again.
Zirbel: Is he going to be there? Well, he put like two minutes into me last time.
CN: I guess he gained like 20 kilos for the track, so …
Zirbel: He's still probably 15 kilos less than me (laughs).
CN: What do you know about the Nationals TT course in Winston-Salem this year?
Zirbel: Nothing. I don't know anything. I don't even know if they've published the route. But I'll try and go out there a few days early. Everything is so squished together with the Tour of California, so we'll make it work so that I have the best shot possible to regain the title. I think it's good for the team as well. So we'll see. I'll just assume that it's going to be a good course for me. Just the layout of the land in that area seems pretty good for a power course more than anything, so hopefully they'll find a power course that's fair.
CN: Going into your final season, have you thought about your legacy and what you want people to remember when they talk about Tom Zirbel 10 yeas from now?
Zirbel: It's funny, but you do think about that. I've given a lot of my life to this sport, and I've gotten so much from it. But then you start thinking about stuff like, 'Oh man, I was a jerk on the bike with those people,' and so I definitely am more aware that sometimes in the heat of the moment in a race, I come off worse than I should. I have to remember that a lot of these guys are new to racing and maybe haven't been around for 10 years and they just don't know better to do this or that.
But as far as legacy I'm not so sure, but I just want to try and be more supportive of other riders, because it's such a tough sport we can't be against each other. You have to try to promote the sport in any way you can. And the young hungry riders are just doing their best to get up to the next level. I want to be more supportive of those riders and certainly not negative to try and keep them down. We're all brothers.
CN: I think [Rally Cycling director Eric] Wohlberg said the sport is hard enough, you don't need to be assholes, too.
Zirbel: Yeah, and that's thing, to just keep that in mind. It's never easy. It's such a tough sport in the racing, training, dedication and the sacrifices you make, so you try to recognize that in people and we're not so different in who we are.
CN: So do you have nay post-racing plans that you want to pursue or avenues that you want to take?
Zirbel: Yeah, there are a few things. I might end up going back to school for a couple of things that have piqued my interest. I'm trying to sell myself as a stay-at-home dad with my wife. It's not working so far with my wife, but I'm really giving it a shot (laughs). I'm going to work on my culinary skills and folding laundry and such in addition to raising our kid.
But, yeah, it's exciting. It's scary, terrifying, on the one hand, but it's also exciting. It seems like my chemistry degree is from a previous lifetime. But it will be good to use a different part of my brain and change things up.
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.