In 2009, Boulder, Colo.-based rider Tom Zirbel rode for the domestic squad Bissell and had signed with Garmin for the 2010 season. But his career crumbled when he tested positive for the steroid DHEA after finishing second in the time trial at the 2009 U.S. championships. Zirbel insisted his test result had been caused by a contaminated supplement, but he couldn't prove it and said he couldn't afford to pay for a legal defense.
Last year, Zirbel gave the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency information relevant to a doping case against his former Bissell teammate Kirk O'Bee, but didn't ask for a reduction in his own sanction. O'Bee ultimately received a lifetime ban for a second doping offense. More recently, backed by a new legal aid service for athletes in Olympic sports, Zirbel agreed to assist USADA in another ongoing case.
Now 32, Zirbel is eligible to ride again after the USADA ended his two-year doping suspension eight months early last week, citing his cooperation in building cases against two other cyclists. They also sent a formal letter acknowledging that contamination was a possibility in his case.
A few excerpts from our conversation:
Ford: When you accepted your suspension, you said you intended to retire and move on with your life. How did that evolve into wanting to ride again?
Zirbel: Last year, I was so bitter and I didn't want anything to do with (cycling) at first. It's like being dumped by someone. You're like, 'I never want to date again. It hurts so bad.' Then you start to heal. My girlfriend likes to ride on the weekends for fun when it's nice out, and I'll go out with her sometimes. I made the mistake of putting a power meter on (the bike). I'm doing these rides, and I'm like, there are probably a handful of people who could put out the power output I just did on this ride, and I have not been training. This is my one skill. That's my talent, and to deny it is doing me more harm than anything else. I love to compete, I love working hard and transforming my body toward a goal. It's a type of drug and I'm not ready to give it up. I view everything I achieve from now on as a gift, and hopefully it'll be positive and I'll have some more good experiences and success along the way, but I'm not counting on anything. I'm always going to have my guard up.
Ford: Isn't it going to be hard to pee into the cup again and hand your fate over to this system?
Zirbel: I know what I do and don't do. It is scary, but (the positive test) is never going to change the way I feel about myself and the way my friends and family feel about me. It does drive me nuts that I still haven't figured out what caused the initial positive, but I have some good ideas and I'm never going to take a dietary supplement while I'm competing again. Beyond that -- you can't live in fear.
Ford: You had some ambivalence about cooperating with USADA. You must have a better understanding now of the pressure athletes feel not to tell.
Zirbel: Because I've been sanctioned for something I didn't do, I definitely want to clean up the sport by any means possible ... If clean athletes currently know about people doping, I really wish they would try to clean it up. Otherwise all the sponsorships are going to dry up.
Ford: But you're clearly not a fan of strict liability. Many would say anti-doping measures would be ineffective without that principle (which states that an athlete is responsible for the presence of a banned substance in his body, no matter how it got there).
Zirbel: I had a blog post a few weeks ago talking about the ineffectiveness of testing. Nothing new. But we just need to change the thinking and make the cheaters the isolated view. I think people want to ride clean. Why would you want to put that stuff in your body? It doesn't feel real, does it?
Ford: What's your opinion of the Contador case? He's also in a situation where he can't prove contamination.
Zirbel: He has to come up with concrete evidence. Otherwise he needs to be sanctioned. They have to be consistent.
Ford: How would you rate your employment prospects in cycling?
Zirbel: I'm hopeful I'll find a good fit. I'm certainly not counting on getting paid this year, but I think I'll be able to find a spot on a good domestic team. I don't know about the Pro Tour. I was a pretty big gamble at age 32 to bring over the pond, and now I'm going to be 33 (in October). And not everyone is convinced that I didn't dope. So I don't know if teams are worried about the image issue ... it hasn't been a problem with anyone I've known or talked to. I haven't pro-actively reached out to any team yet. I have athletes who I'm coaching and that's my priority right now.