Tom Zirbel nearly lost it when he received notification of his two-year suspension on Thursday.
“I just snapped,” he said Saturday. “I was going to burn bridges so that I could never come back. Sometimes the best way to do it is cold turkey and once I make that commitment, there’s no going back.”
But Zirbel’s girlfriend talked him down and on Friday he used his blog to announce his retirement, leaving himself room to return to the sport when his suspension for a positive DHEA test at the 2009 U.S. Professional Time Trial Championships ends in 2011.
Before Zirbel received the notice, he had been working with a legal team and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to determine the origin of the DHEA in his system when he was tested last August in Greenville, South Carolina. Zirbel had hoped that he would receive a reduced suspension and could return to the sport in 2010 – the notification ended those hopes.
“I started envisioning coming back and maybe I’m able to prove it got into my body unknowingly, maybe I’m not, but I’m always going to have to deal with that doubt and people putting an asterisk next to my name. That was hard for me to deal with, always having that for the rest of my career,” he said.
That career was on the upswing when Zirbel received his positive test notification from USADA in November. Coming off his fourth-place time trial at the world championships, he was under contract with Garmin-Transitions for 2010. No longer.
“The day the A sample came back, the damage had been done – everything had changed,” he said.
Not all of that change has been bad, however. Zirbel is taking his exit from cycling as an opportunity to return to the service activities that he abandoned in recent years.
“The challenge that I put out there to myself, alluding to that in the blog post, that’s exciting too, because I’ve recommitted myself to service, if that’s what you’d like to call it,” he said. “I need to do a better job of being more involved in the life of the kid I’m mentoring, being more of the male role model I signed up to be.”
Zirbel mentors a Denver-area youth through the I Have A Dream Foundation. He also hopes to forge a teaching career and get involved with youth athletics.
“I really see the value of extracurricular activities in developing youth,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be athletics – the hard work and camaraderie, the sense of teamwork and community are important values to instill at that age.”
For now, he is joining millions of his countrymen in tuning up his résumé and jumping into the job market.
“My focus is the same as millions of Americans out there – just get a job and start paying some bills,” he said. “It’s a pretty simple thought process, but it’s not so simple in this job market.”
Zirbel won’t rule out a return to cycling when his suspension ends, as a rider or in some other role. Should he launch a comeback, former Bissell teammate Ben Jacques-Maynes will stand behind him
“I think Tom is in a horrible position,” Jacques-Maynes said. “Having spent the last three years together we¹ve railed against dopers together and he’s the last guy that I expected to test positive. It’s one of the most unfortunate incidents I’ve had to experience. It’s one of those nightmares as a clean cyclist that you have in the back of your head. You ask yourself what you would do in that situation.”
Zirbel conceded that the expense of a dopin defense played at least a small role in his decision to call it quits.
“I’d like to say no, but I don’t think that that’s completely truthful,” he said. “It was there in the back of my mind. There was no way I was going to spend what Floyd (Landis) and Tyler (Hamilton) spent.”
“It’s very obvious that the amount you spend does not correlate with your success rate. To me, it was either that we found it, where it came from, through lab work and it was very definitive, or not.”
While he has abandoned his defense against USADA, Zirbel will continue to try to find out where the DHEA in his samples came from.
“If it’s not too expensive, I’m still going to try and figure out how it happened, both for personal reasons and to prevent it from happening to someone else,” he said. “If it’s a fluke and we never figure out where it came from, then at least I tried. It kills me that I have no idea at this point and that’s scary.”
In the meantime, Zirbel said the anti-doping machinery could do with a tune-up of its own.
“There needs to be reform and there needs to be middle ground found or soon we’re all going to have to shop only at the farmer’s market,” Zirbel said. “It’s scary to think about all the things I’ve considered testing. Where does it end?”
— Robbie Stout contributed to this report