By Brian Holcombe
Tom Zirbel announced Sunday that he had tested positive for dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) following the USA Cycling Professional Individual Time Trial Championships in August.
The 2009 National Racing Calendar champion proclaimed his innocence and asked that his “B” sample be tested.
“The U.S. pro TT was a major objective of mine this season, but I would never compromise my integrity for any bike race,” Zirbel said.
On Monday, Zirbel discussed his situation with Brian Holcombe.
VeloNews: Take me through the last four months.
Tom Zirbel: Everything was par for the course until mid-November when I got the word back (of the positive “A” sample). I didn’t change my preparation; I didn’t do anything different than I’d been doing leading up to U.S. pro, Tour of Missouri and worlds.
VN: How many times were you tested in 2009?
TZ: I’ve been tested 20-something times this year. I was tested eight days before the positive test and three days after, both negative.
VN: I imagine that the test eight days before was in competition at Tour of Utah.
TZ: Yep, Tour of Utah time trial. The test three days after was out of competition. They showed up at my door the day after I got back from U.S. pro, which I’m kind of thankful for now because it was another negative test, although it is pretty annoying when they show up at your door at 6 a.m.
VN: What about other tests during the month before or after the positive test?
TZ: I had a blood test the morning after my worlds time trial. Beyond that, I can’t remember any other ones at the moment.
VN: Did anything about the testing at nationals appear abnormal?
TZ: It was the most dehydrated I’ve ever been for a test. I could speculate about that, but we’ll just save that for another time.
VN: You received the notification in mid-November from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. What was your reaction?
TZ: I was freaking out a little bit. I went through a pretty large range of emotions —pretty typical, I think. I started to shake and panic and then tried to deal with it the best I can. That’s where I’ve been ever since.
VN: Have you ever knowingly used DHEA?
VN: There is already speculation that the positive test may be due to tainted supplements. Can you address that speculation at this point?
VN: Who are you working with during the “B” sample analysis?
TZ: I’ve been in contact with Dr. Max Testa and Dr. Andy Phillips, who is my former chemistry professor at (the University of Colorado). He’s been a huge help in helping me understand the chemistry, what I’m up against and what we can do. He’s actually been my biggest supporter and help thus far. There have been a couple of other people that I’ve solicited for help and they’ve done what they can to help out with information and ideas.
VN: How are you working with Dr. Testa?
TZ: He’s been writing me training programs for the last year and a half, so I’ve done testing there and he knows my body and he knows my personality. He believes that the test is either flawed or that something got into my body without my knowing. He has a lot of experience with helping athletes and nutrition, supplements and everything, so he’s been helping me with ideas of where it could come from and what tests I should get and things of that nature.
VN: What kind of testing are you pursuing?
TZ: I’m trying to find out what my normal values are for things like this. We want to be thorough and knock out every variable so that we can find out where it came from.
VN: Where was the “B” sample opened?
TZ: The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City on the campus of the University of Utah.
VN: You were there.
VN: Did you have anyone from your camp present with you at the lab?
TZ: I hired Paul Scott to accompany me to make sure everything was done according to protocol. And it was. They do a good job there. I didn’t expect them not to. I have to feel like I played a part in the whole thing instead of sitting at home, waiting.
VN: Are you continuing to work with Scott?
TZ: I may work with him again. I need to figure out what I’m up against. I’m not doing anything until USADA gets back with the “B” sample. I wasn’t even going to do a press release, but I had no idea it was going to take four-plus weeks to get the results back.
VN: Have you been in contact with USADA and do you have a timeframe for when you expect the “B” sample to come back?
TZ: Yes. They are working hard and they assured me that they’re working hard to get it to me as soon as possible. That’s all the information that they give me.
VN: I imagine that the trip to Salt Lake City was not the way you had envisioned returning to the chemistry lab.
TZ: No, but it did reignite a flame that had been extinguished long ago. I do have a passion for chemistry and that was the one part that out of everything that I thought was kind of cool, but I would rather it be on my own terms.
VN: Tell me about the relationship with the Garmin-Transitions folks.
TZ: I’ve been straightforward and open about everything from the get-go with both teams (Garmin-Transitions and Bissell Pro Cycling). I’ve been keeping them in the loop on what’s going on. (Jonathan) Vaughters has been helpful and supportive and he put me in contact with a few people that helped me out.
I understand their whole campaign — they need a clean slate. That’s what they’re selling. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that they want to separate themselves from me. I don’t take it personally. That being said, I don’t know what would happen if the “B” sample comes back negative or if I’m cleared of this. I haven’t spoken with anyone for the last couple weeks, so I don’t know where I stand or what’s going on or if there is any relationship at this point.
VN: That being said, when you last spoke with them, what was the understanding that you took away from that conversation regarding your status?
TZ: I think that (Vaughters) understands the situation. The more familiar you are with DHEA and other illegal drugs, you know that DHEA is not something that anyone with half a brain would take, getting tested as much as I do. I think he understands the situation, but at the same time, his hands are tied. He can’t have anyone associated with that. People don’t do due diligence and try to understand the situation – they see a positive doping test and they see blood transfusions and EPO and everything else; it’s all lumped together.
VN: Have you talked to any of the riders in the Garmin-Transitions team?
VN: What about your Bissell teammates?
TZ: I didn’t disclose any of this to my teammates, just my boss. Since last night, I’ve already been receiving encouragement from people, which has been really helpful. At this point, it’s really all I can ask for. I don’t expect people that don’t know me to vouch for me. I’m getting support from the people that do know me.
VN: Let’s say that the “B” sample returns positive. What course of action will you follow in that instance?
TZ: Well, I’ll try to prove that it was taken without my knowing and try to get the suspension reduced. It’s been done before. I think I’d still face a suspension, but if I can get it reduced, I can come back from one year. Two years, I’m not sure. I’d have trouble coming back mentally. That changes things and I might have to start thinking about life after cycling.
VN: You are well prepared for that life away from cycling. Do you have any thoughts on that life?
TZ: I would probably get my teaching certification and teach high school science. That’s probably my plan A at this point. I would still need a competitive outlet. There are plenty of things out there that I still want to do, so that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. And I don’t mean just competing against other people. I have a lot of things that I want to do. As far as making money it would probably teaching at the high school level, but that’s subject to change.
VN: What are those other things you want to do?
TZ: I just bought climbing shoes. I’ve never climbed before. There are a lot of hikes I want to do. Triathlons, I’ve never done that and it looks appealing.
VN: You were home for the holidays. Tell me about the support you’re receiving from family.
TZ: That’s been what’s sustaining me, both my friends and family. They haven’t questioned for a second what’s going on, taking what I say as the absolute truth. That’s been helpful. It’s what I’ve been focusing on. We get pretty singularly focused in the sport and it’s easy to let it lead you, but I’ve tried to maintain a level of balance throughout my career and I think that’s helping me now. I do have incredible support from friends and family that I’ve drawn upon since day one of my cycling career and that’s what is getting me through this right now.