It's been a long road back to the top for Tom Zirbel, and he knows all too well how precarious any position can be in the world of pro cycling. But that doesn't mean he's not enjoying being back in the forefront of American pro cycling.
Zirbel rode a spectacular race Saturday in the USA Cycling Professional Time Trial Championship, winning the national title in 38 minutes, 16.04 seconds over the 19-mile course at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant in front of several hundred fans.
"You know, the gaps are so small at this level that a lot of times it comes down to who was on that day," he said after finishing 17 seconds faster than BMC Racing's Brent Bookwalter to earn the Stars and Stripes jersey as national champion. "So I didn't put pressure on myself that I had to win, because at this level I could have easily finished fifth rather than first."
Four years ago at this same event in Greenville, S.C., Zirbel found himself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. After finishing second in the U.S. pro time trials that year, he was informed by the United States Anti Doping Association that he had tested positive for DHEA, a banned endogenous steroid. He denied knowingly taking a banned substance but accepted a two-year ban and retired from the sport.
The ban later was reduced to 18 months in recognition of assistance he gave to the USADA, and he returned to the sport in 2011. He maintains that he did not take a banned substance on purpose.
"Everyone knows that this sport is a giant roller coaster," Zirbel said. "I've definitely had my blows where I almost walked away. ... But I do love to ride my bike and I love racing, and I stuck with it.
"This was definitely a career hightlght."
Zirbel, who races for the Optium presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies team, has four runner-up finishes in the U.S. pro time trial championships, and he said it's hard to believe he finally has gotten the national title he's tried to achieve for so long.
"I think it's going to sink in over the next couple of days," he said. "I said earlier that I try not to get too high or too low, but I really think that this is a validation of my career."
On a warm, sunny day at the Volkswagen plant, Zirbel posted the fastest time after the first of two laps on the 9.5-mile course that went from the plant out Hickory Valley Road and back.
Bookwalter was close behind at the intermediate split but couldn't make up any time on the second lap and had to settle for the silver medal after finishing third last season.
Completing the podium was Nathan Brown, a 21-year-old native of the Memphis area who put in a solid showing as the national championships made their debut in his home state.
Brown finished just 0.77 second faster than his Bontrager Cycling teammate Lawson Craddock and was in the lead with a time of 38:57.15 while Zirbel and Bookwalter were on the course as two of the last riders to finish.
"I knew those two guys had set fast early splits, so I was holding on," he said. "It was close, but I know they would have fast second laps. I was sort of hoping one of them would mess up, but they both had great rides.
"I'm just happy to be up here with them. Finishing in third place is an honor."
The racing comes downtown for the men's and women's road race championships Monday on a course that will feature much of downtown, the North Shore, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and -- for the men -- four climbs up Lookout Mountain.
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JFTanner.