Zirbel gets two-year ban, retires from cycling

Tom Zirbel has announced his retirement following the announcement of his two-year ban for doping

Tom Zirbel has announced his retirement following the announcement of his two-year ban for doping (Image credit: www.ispaphoto.com)

US time trial specialist Tom Zirbel has decided to retire from cycling after receiving a two year ban from the United States anti-doping Agency (USADA).

The 31 year-old learnt in November that he had returned a non-negative test for DHEA at the 2009 USPRO TT championships, where he took his second consecutive silver medal behind Dave Zabriskie. This result was subsequently confirmed by B sample analysis, as disclosed by Zirbel on his blog one month ago.

Since then the USADA has reached its decision, giving him the usual, full two-year ban for a first offence.

“I officially received a two-year sanction notification from USADA today. No big surprise, right? I alluded to this weeks ago,” Zirbel wrote on his blog. “But my reaction is a surprise. Call it the straw that broke the camel's back – I don't know. Whatever the trigger, I've decided to walk away from the sport.”

Zirbel said that he hadn’t discussed his decision with anyone, and realises that it may appear to be a rash announcement. He explained that he originally planned to return to the sport, but decided very soon afterwards that he wanted to call it quits.

“I've been watching the Olympics these last few days and it has been really inspiring for me,” he continued. “For the first time, I can see myself standing on the podium, bowing my head to receive my medal. This is a breakthrough for me. It helped me affirm to myself that I need to come back from this ordeal and rise to the top and accomplish greater things in the sport of cycling.”

That didn’t last long. “Today, I started asking “Why?”. Why do I 'need' to come back? Well, because I've felt this burning in my gut these last two weeks, propelling me to work harder and become faster than I ever have before…. Maybe it's because I've grown accustomed to the cycling spotlight and people looking up to me. Maybe it's because I want to show all these doubters just how strong I am. Maybe it's because I want to continue to live the 'pro' lifestyle… But what am I truly after in this life? Asking myself this question today the answer was “to be extraordinary”. I want nothing to do with mediocrity. But on top of that (and what I've lost sight of in the last few years), I want to improve the world.”

Zirbel wrote about his past, saying that he gave to others prior to his cycling career. He said he donated to charities and volunteered at a homeless shelter, but found himself doing less for others as his pro career developed. He said that he became more self-absorbed as he strove to reach the top.

Using former riders Eric Heiden and Davis Phinney as examples of what can be done after pro careers, pointing to their respective roles as a surgeon and a crusader against Parkinson’s disease, he said that he wanted to put his energy into matters unrelated to cycling.

“I've come to the realization that I would rather be a David Benke [math school teacher who rushed a gunman on his campus] than a Cancellara. I would rather help the boy I'm mentoring graduate from college and break the cycle of poverty in his family than win a Pro Tour TT. To me, the life I'm choosing from this day on is more challenging and potentially rewarding than the life of training to ride in a straight line really fast for 40 minutes. For whatever reason, I haven't been able to do both so it's time to step back and re-prioritize.”

Zirbel had his best ever season in 2009, taking second in the USPRO TT champs, netting fourth in the Tour of Missouri and placing fourth in the world time trial championships in Switzerland. The former Bissell pro team rider was set to race in Europe with the Garmin-Transitions team, but that contract was annulled when he tested positive.

He has insisted that he never knowingly took a doping substance and reiterated that in his latest statement. He also said that he will continue to try to work out what happened, partly in case he changes his mind.

“Today, I laid all my cards on the table for USADA. I told them everything that I know about the positive test, meaning every possible lead as to how it happened, and that I will cooperate in any way that I can. As great as my lawyer has been for me, I told him that I needed to do this on my own from now on. I have no intention of taking this case to a hearing.

“Now that I've made the determination that I really could and would walk away from the sport forever, it's liberating. USADA, WADA, and the UCI no longer have power over me. But I will continue to jump through a few hoops (if not too high nor on fire) in order to leave the option open for a return in years to come (though I sort of hope I have the courage to begin a completely new career and never look back).”

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