Missteps behind him, time-trial specialist Tom Zirbel is back on track

After a few missteps last season, including an ill-advised change of position, Zirbel is back on top of his time-trial game

SILVER CITY, N.M. (VN) — When Tom Zirbel won the Tyrone time trial at Silver City’s Tour of the Gila, it marked the end of a series of setbacks that marred his 2012 season.

First illness interrupted his training. Then he adjusted his time trial position, a move he recognizes in retrospect was driven more by nerves than knowledge. This season, the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies rider is back on track, but he’s up against a stronger gang of rivals.

The level of U.S. men’s racing is rising in the time trials, Zirbel says. Teams and sponsors are making sure that riders have time trial bikes for training, and more riders are devoting training hours to the uncomfortable business.

“It’s easier to get into the wind tunnel now than it was, too,” said Zirbel.

It all makes for a longer road to the podium.

“I consider myself a time trial specialist, but the gap is getting smaller all the time,” Zirbel said. “It’s getting harder and harder to win, so it’s definitely nice to get one.”

Over the course of his six-year career as a professional, Zirbel has steadily scooped up time trial stage victories. Two seasons ago, he finished second in the national championship time trial, but in 2012, he struggled to reach his best level. The problems began when he overtrained during the winter.

“I just really wanted to impress the team,” he said. “It’s just one of those lessons every endurance athlete has to learn. And relearn it again three years later. We’re not always the quickest.”

During the early season last year, Zirbel traveled to Uruguay for a stage race, in the process collecting “a whole bunch of interesting bugs.” Then, unnerved by his lack of results, Zirbel altered his time trial position.

“I rode with a few time trials without results and I started tinkering with things.” he said. It was a mistake: “As a bigger rider, the conventional position doesn’t work for me.”

As he talks about his missteps last season, Zirbel shows his sense of humor and self-awareness. He can laugh at himself and the weird compulsions that lead endurance athletes sometimes to work against their own strengths.

“It goes with the territory,” he said, laughing.

There is nothing easy about a time trial on a windy day. On Friday, a solid east wind whipped the Tyrone course and twisted around the course’s canyons. For Zirbel, the wind proved less of a factor than it did for some of the lighter climbers, and he used his normal aero wheels, despite the crosswind-blown descents.

“Just because of my weight, I was able to use the deepest rims and still be relatively comfortable,” said Zirbel. “But I think most people made the choice to go with shallower rims, but those aren’t quite as fast.”

Pushed by the wind, riders tacked back and forth across the road, their bikes tilting and swaying. Standing over 6 feet tall, Zirbel is not about to get blown off the road.

“They probably ended up riding two kilometers farther than me, just from being blown around,” he said. “Our average speed was the same, but they just went further!”

Though the wind did not faze him, Zirbel was surprised by the cold morning temperatures in Tyrone. A front dropped into Silver City overnight and the mercury pooled at the freezing end of the thermometer, giving the wind an extra bite. The riders climbed Mogollon in dry, desert heat, so Friday’s weather came as a shock.

“I actually wore an undershirt under my skinsuit for the first time ever. I was contemplating gloves too. It was a game-time decision,” said Zirbel, laughing. “Then I was like, oh, I’ll be okay.”

The Tour of the Gila holds a special place in the hearts of many riders. As a long-time Colorado resident, Zirbel has made the trip to Gila since he was a category 3 racer. The desert terrain and hard racing appeal to him.

“It’s been a part of my cycling history since the beginning,” said Zirbel. “I love the stages, and I like how they give this opportunity to do the hard road races to all the categories. No matter what category, it’s a hard race.”

A rarity in U.S. racing, the Tour of the Gila has remained mostly unchanged for the length of its run. This year marks the event’s 27th edition. Stories of the Mogollon climb and the Gila Monster stage are handed down from rider to rider, growing taller in the telling.

“It’s cool to have a race that’s consistent over the years. It’s part of the history and the heritage,” said Zirbel. “It’s important that a person who did it in 1999 can relate to a person doing it in 2013. In the surrounding states, the Tour of the Gila is a rite of passage for a bike racer.”

From the Tour of the Gila, Zirbel heads next week to the Amgen Tour of California. This year’s San Jose time trial stage may prove hard going for him, because it finishes on a steep climb. Unlike the crosswinds of Tyrone, the course in San Jose will likely tilt the advantage toward the climbers at Zirbel’s expense.

Zirbel has his eye on the June national championship time trial in Chattanooga. In his early years as a rider, Zirbel trained frequently in Tennessee, because one of his teammates had family there. Though the course is new, he will be on familiar ground in Chattanooga.

“I’m excited to see the new course,” said Zirbel. “I love that area. Hopefully, the time trial, it should suit me.”

Zirbel also expects his teammates Chad Haga and Scott Zwizanski to ride well in Tennessee. At Redlands, Zirbel placed a close second to Haga in the race’s opening time trial. Like any athlete, Zirbel hates to lose, but he also plainly has a good relationship with his teammates. There was plenty of laughter and banter between Zirbel and Haga that day in Redlands.

“Team success is always good. It just happens that Chad and Zwiz are great people, which helps,” said Zirbel. “We get it done with a minimum of drama.”

This season already looks better for Zirbel than 2012. The winter went smoothly, his time trial position is dialed, and he did not pick up any interesting bugs. On Friday in Tyrone, he picked up a long-awaited victory that he hopes offers a promise of more good days to come.