Zirbel an underdog at US Pro time trial championships

Heading into the USA Cycling Professional Championships time trial on Saturday in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Optum Pro Cycling's Tom Zirbel finds himself in the awkward position of being the defending champion but not the favorite for the win.

Taylor Phinney is at the race this year, and the 23-year-old BMC rider is the top pick to take the stars-and-stripes jersey.

“It's a little different going into the race as the defending champion and not being the favorite,” Zirbel told Cyclingnews this week while driving from Nashville to Chattanooga. “But I think it's great that he's here. We always want to race against the best.”

Nonetheless, Zirbel, 35, has put a bout with a stomach bug last week at the Tour of California behind him and is ready to defend his national title. Zirbel finished 11th during the individual time trial in Folsom, California, a relatively flat out-and-back course that is similar to the Chattanooga route. He was 1:25 off the time of winner Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and 36 seconds behind Phinney, who finished third. The six-foot-four-inch rider struggled up the double climbs of Mt. Hamilton and Mt. Diablo the next day and then did not take the start for stage 4.

Optum director Jonas Carney said he sent Zirbel home to try and cut the team's losses in California and give the big rider an opportunity to recover and prepare for this weekend. Zirbel was able to spend time at home with his family, including his 4-month-old baby, allowing him to relax and put cycling in its proper perspective.

“I feel pretty good, but I'm a little nervous,” Zirbel said. “I put in a couple of hard efforts over the last couple of days to see how things are going, and I felt pretty good.”

Zirbel said he hopes to be firing on all “eight cylinders” Saturday and put in a ride that could bring him another jersey, although he realizes that a course that suits him well will also favor Phinney, who shares a similar stature and skills.

“[The course] is flat and fast and and not too technical,” Zirbel said. “So I think it does suit me well and my strengths. I think I proved that last year. But it will definitely suit [Phinney] well, too. I think he proved that in Folsom, and we know he is going well the way he rode in California.”

Zirbel covered the 30.6km course around the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga in 38:16 last year, finishing 17 seconds ahead of BMC's Brent Bookwalter and 41 seconds ahead of Nathan Brown, who now rides for Garmin-Sharp.

Bookwalter is competing in the Giro d'Italia this year, but BMC has Phinney instead. The time trial specialist missed the championships the past two years to compete in the Giro, where he won the opening prologue in 2012 and wore the maglia rosa for two days. He was second at the UCI time trial championships in 2012 and took fourth at the Olympic time trial that year. Phinney won the US pro time trial in 2010, the same year he seized victory in the U23 world time trial championship.

Although Phinney fell short of the win in California's race of truth last week, he put his time trial skills to work on stage 5, soloing to a win in Santa Barbara after attacking on a descent 26km from the finish and holding off the chase from the sprinters' teams. The young BMC rider appears to be on fire, but Zirbel, who beat Phinney by 1:19 during the BMC rider's last appearance at nationals in 2011, willingly accepts the underdog role in his jersey defense.

His only regret about the upcoming weekend is that his personal time trial rival, Chad Haga (Giant-Shimano), won't be there, robbing the Optum rider of a chance to even the tally in their ongoing battle. Haga finished 10th in California, just ahead of his former teammate and friendly rival.

“I was so disappointed when I found out he won't be here,” Zirbel said of Haga. “I guess they had some logistical issues with him going to [Criterium du] Dauphine. After he beat me by three seconds in Folsom, I really wanted to get some revenge.”

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