As American Tom Zirbel enters his first season with the Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies team, he is coming off a solid off-season of training and is more motivated than ever to return not just to his previous level of prowess in time trials, but aims to be "unbeatable" in 2012.
In 2009, Zirbel was just coming off his best ever season. Having placed fourth in the time trial at the world championships, he was on the verge of joining the ProTour after signing a contract with the Garmin team. Everything went wrong when in November of 2009 he was informed he'd tested positive for DHEA during his silver medal performance at the US Pro time trial championships four months earlier. He lost that result, his worlds place, his job and his shot at the top of the sport when he was given a two-year ban.
Zirbel was able to have his suspension reduced by cooperating with the anti-doping authorities, and raced half a season with the Jamis-Sutter Home team in 2011. Although he didn't have an optimum build-up to the season, he claimed second place in the US Pro time trial and other solid results, and had offers from several teams. He opted to choose the Optum Pro Cycling team for its family feel.
"I really enjoyed my time with Jamis last year, they're a cool bunch of people and it was a great opportunity for me to get to be on a pro team. I was fortunate to have some really good options at the end of last year as far as which team I would ride for, and i just felt like from the people, the sponsors and the management that the best situation for me was with Optum," Zirbel told Cyclingnews.
Coming to the sport in his mid-20s, Zirbel has never developed the kind of swagger that accompanies early success in cycling, and with the genuine nature of a mid-westerner, when he contends the doping positive was the result of a supplement tainted with steroids he is easy to believe. His new team director Jonas Carney believes him, his teammates believe him, and now Zirbel is ready to turn the page on the entire affair.
"I had a lot of really good support, I had people who believed me, that I don't know how this happened and I'm not a shady character, I've been fortunate in that respect," he said.
The episode still serves as a cautionary tale to other athletes who take supplements which, Zirbel contends, are too unregulated and can contain banned substances without them being specifically listed on the label.
"I've never been able to prove one way or another if it was a tainted supplement, but I found out about the positive two and a half months after the end of the season, so i didn't have much of the products left that I was using," he said. When asked which product he suspects, Zirbel would not name names for fear of legal action, but would only say he refuses to use any product that is not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.
"I don't live in fear [of testing positive again], I don't take any supplements. It's sometimes difficult, if you're put in a situation where you either have to drink water or take a supplement ... Last year on Jamis it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. This year, they know my situation and know I'm absolutely not going to take anything, so I don't think they'll put me in that situation of say, handing me stuff in the middle of a race.
"The problem is that there is no third party overlooking and verifying the ingredients in the bottle in the US. They can say whatever they want on the label - it's unfortunate. Our supplement industry is still so unregulated compared to Europe. The companies that go the extra step and have the FDA verify what's in there, I can at least trust them a little bit more, and that's my simple rule."
Even if Zirbel could have proven which supplement had contained DHEA or some kind of steroid that might have resulted in his positive test, he said it would not have made a difference. The WADA code classifies the substance in the category that even if ingestion is unintentional, riders still face a two-year ban.
"If I had concrete proof, that would have made me feel a little better," Zirbel said, but added, "even if I could have proved it definitively, I would have got at least a year, that's the way the system is set up. Even if there was no chance of it enhancing my performance, even if the company completely lied on the label what is in there, it wouldn't matter I'd still get a year."
Looking ahead, Zirbel isn't regretting his lost opportunity with Garmin, and even if he can get back to his top form or better, he hopes to stay with Optum and grow along with the team.
"So far I love this organization, and I feel the team is going to grow, at this point I'd like to grow with them. I'm not using them as a stepping stone, this is where I want to be."
He is hoping that the team will be invited to the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which will visit his home base of Boulder, Colorado. But as a Continental team, there are no guarantees, and so far the team is not looking past May in terms of goals.
"I really want to win some races with the new team and pay them back for the trust and confidence they have in me.
"Regardless of what you believe, I still have a doping positive, and for Optum Pro Cycling to take that chance and believe in me means a lot to me. So I want to help them win races, whether it's me or just killing myself for Jesse [Anthony] or Scott [Zwizanski] or whoever. I want to start getting results from day one. Tomorrow. Let's go!"
The overriding goal for Zirbel will be to return to the top of the stack in the time trials, and the US Pro championships will be a major target toward re-establishing himself in the off-chance that he can win a berth on the US Olympic team for London.
"I have the Olympics sort of on my mind a little bit again, and it's going to be out of my control a bit. I need to perform well and I need some bigger names to not perform well really for me to have a shot with only one spot this year.
"I think on a flat or rolling course when I'm going well, I can't be beat by too many people. They have to be riding really well to beat me. I really want to be unbeatable this year. I expect that from myself. If I don't get selected [for London] that's fine, I just want to give myself every opportunity to make it.
"There's no shortage of good time trialers," he continued, listing off Levi Leipheimer, Dave Zabriskie, Taylor Phinney, Christian Vande Velde, Chris Horner and others. "I expect myself to step up. I feel like I'm where I should have been in 2010 coming off my best season ever, and having a lot of confidence in time trials. Last year was not as good as I've done in time trials. I will have the right support behind me, the right buildup and the right motivation to take a step up.
"Things are progressing very well. It's important to get on the TT bike and start tweaking the little things right away. From bike to bike there's always certain position changes, and you have to mess around with it. [Optum] were great about getting me an Orbea really quickly so I have been able to dial that in."
Zirbel's first race will be the Merced Cycling Classic in Northern California, and then will return to Colorado before kicking off the NRC calendar at Redlands.