What's Cool In Road Cycling

Tom Zirbel Gets PEZ’d!

From the day PEZ chased Tom Zirbel at the Tour of California, the boss has been keen to get an interview and ride with the big man himself. After a great Top Ride in 70 degree weather, PEZ sat down for a warm cup of coffee on a chilly 30 degree morning with Tom Zirbel to wrap up the interview and learn what makes this time trial machine tick.

Contributed by Nathan Rand

PEZ: You taxed me up some local climbs earlier this week; what makes the Fourmile, Gold Hill and Sunshine loop your favorite ride in Boulder?
Zirbel: That’s just a great ride when you don’t have much time and you need to get a good workout in and you want beautiful scenery. You can just go out for an hour and a half, two hours and just kill it up Fourmile and get some beautiful riding in and then a little sketchy descending. A city limit sprint and your home.


Tom Zirbel is a threat to win anytime he gets on a time trial bike.

PEZ: Speaking of which, how much do I owe you for letting me win that sprint?
Zirbel: I’d like to tell you that I gave that to you, but with your sprinting prowess, I just couldn’t match it, that with your 14 lb. bike [ed. note 12 lbs.], I just didn’t have a chance.

PEZ: Can you share with Pez readers your secret descending technique down Sunshine?
Zirbel: Upright on the top, get big, push as much air as possible, save those brakes, open up the jacket, parachute style.

PEZ: For your size, do you have any special bike equipment?
Zirbel: Well, the mechanic will not even let me look at the climbing wheels, those are off limits. Obviously, I need sturdier wheels and in the past he’s been putting me on alloy cranks, not that I put out that much power. I don’t know what that’s all about, but for the most part, I get stock equipment.

PEZ: Do you see any equipment changes, personally, for yourself in 09?
Zirbel: I’m gonna try a smaller crank size, I think that’ll help a little bit with my accelerations. The one thing that I lack in road racing, so yeah, I’m gonna try a few different things and wider bars, little things like that. Other than that, the team will be on [edited to remove top secret Bissell 2009 equipment reference.]

PEZ: What led you to try these changes for next year?
Zirbel: Just talking with some experts that know a lot more about cycling than me. Dario Pegoretti is the one that started me thinking about smaller, or shorter cranks and it’s hard to argue with a guy who’s seen and done as much as he has and is pretty much considered the best bike builder in the world by many. So you should listen when he says something.

PEZ: Do you train with power all year round?
Zirbel: Yeah, I do. I’ve been training with power since I started working with Frank Overton back in 2004. So, it’s kind of a staple. I know where I need to be, when I need to be there. So, it’s just a good gauge for my fitness and to make sure I’m not slacking on a ride.

PEZ: What results are you most proud of in 2008?
Zirbel: Coming into the year, we were at the Tour of California, the biggest race for any domestic team, so we wanted to get some good exposure there and I thought we did that. I was happy getting top ten and Ben [Jacques-Maynes] and I getting a top ten in the time trial. That was the goal going in. The stage 7 breakaway was an added bonus. I just happened to be feeling good later in the week and that was some good exposure for the team, so I was happy with that. One of the highlights of the year was definitely the Tour De Nez win that we got. I was happy to be part of that winning team to come from behind. Aaron Olsen winning the GC overall, that was one of the highlights of the season for sure.

PEZ: How about your time trial at nationals?
Zirbel: It was good to be on the podium for the first time, for sure, but I was going for the win. I’m still pretty disappointed about that. But, looking back, you know, it’s good. I’m glad I was on the podium with that caliber of riders next to me.

PEZ: Five seconds off the jersey’s a pretty good low for the year.
Zirbel: Pretty good low? Yeah, it’s just hard to swallow on a course like that, a technical course, when there’s so many turns and I played it fairly conservative the whole time. So, to look back and know I lost by five seconds because I wasn’t taking risks is hard to swallow.


Tom gets some love on the National Championship podium.

PEZ: What would your ideal time trial course be like?
Zirbel: I would say close to 40 K, rolling, really hard, no real rhythm spots, and 40 mile an hour crosswinds.

PEZ: That just may put Levi in the gutter. What are your goals for 2009?
Zirbel: I want to continue to win races. I think Bissell did a great job in 2008. We had a streak for like 3 months where we won at least a stage in every stage race we entered. So, we have to win more races. Personally, I want to win the GC in a stage race, a smaller, like an NRC and I wouldn’t mind a national championship jersey either.

PEZ: As we discussed on the bike, how do you plan on securing your goal of a GC win?
Zirbel: The time trial is going to be crucial. I’m not going to win a GC that doesn’t have a time trial. But you know I have to work on everything else besides a time trial as well.

PEZ: Last season, did you subscribe more to the philosophy of training your strengths or training your weaknesses? and will that change for 2009?
Zirbel: As you get into the season, it’s funny how every year you tell yourself your going to work on your weaknesses, but you look at the big races coming up and you’re expected to do these things and, for me, it’s the time trials or the breakaways. So, during the season, I end up training my strengths no matter what because that’s what I’m paid to do. This off season, I’m really trying to work on my weaknesses and focus a little bit on that during the season. But, in all likelihood, it will just be time trial training during the season.


Zirbel’s big strength very nearly netted him a stage win this year at the Tour of California. Can he break through for a stage win in 2009?

PEZ: What went on in your head when you were the team leader in Gila after the time trial?
Zirbel: That was an odd situation because Burke [Swindlehurst] is the guy who’s won that race three times so being at the last stage was so epic with the three categorized climbs. We still weren’t considering me as the only leader. Burke was in a good position to win that race. So, I was protected and Burke was protected. We had two different cards to play in that race. So, I don’t know if that was the strategy to take some pressure off of me, but I felt like it was my race to win and I never really got the opportunity to show it. [Zirbel went down in a pileup with half a dozen other riders and was escorted to the hospital in the leader’s jersey. The damage- a broken collarbone, three ribs and a hand. Others were less fortunate.]


Zirbel will be racing, once again, for the oh so successful Bissell squad.

PEZ: Does what happened at Gila in the leader’s jersey give you extra motivation this year?
Zirbel: Yeah. I just need to take things easier. I need to be smarter in that leadership role. There’s no reason for me to be getting going crazy down that descent with those guys. I know I can’t slow down as fast as the other guys in the peloton and when we all start getting going fast, I just got carried away. So, I should have relaxed. That was not the race right there, the race was coming up, we still had two more climbs. As far as motivation for the next year, yeah, it’s starting to be like a monkey on my back. I want to win a GC race so, yeah, the next opportunity I’ll deliver.


On the top step of the podium at Elk Grove.

PEZ: How many days a week do you spend on the TT bike during the season?
Zirbel: In season, when we’re going stage race to stage race, when I’m home I’ll only spend maybe one or two days a week. But if I’m coming on a big race where I’m focusing on the time trial, I’ll get on it as much as I can. The only problem with doing it every day is that my back needs a rest. My back and my neck, it’s not a comfortable position, so it’s not something I could do day after day. But I find that if I do a day and then take two days off on the road bike and then go back it, I respond pretty well. My body begins to not like the TT bike, but accepts it.

PEZ: Do you see TTs as your pathway to racing in Europe?
Zirbel: Well, definitely, my time trial is going to open a lot of doors. But, it might be a combination of my time trial and the fact that I’m going to be 31 in 2009. So, it’s convincing teams that I’m not gonna be done cycling at age 33 or 34, that I’m going to continue to improve into my mid-30s and possibly be cycling until my upper 30s, even 40. I got into the sport late and I still feel young. I’m not somebody that’s been burned out by cycling since he was 13. So, I’m gonna continue to improve as long as I continue to love the sport. I’m gonna get better and better and, you know, you look at guys like [Scott] Moninger, Ned Overend, and my director, Eric Wohlberg. These guys are legends and they were tearing legs off at age 40. So, I’m gonging to keep getting better as long as I stay focused and love the sport.


Zirbel interviewed after his podium at TT Nationals. If Tom can manage to net a few more post-race interviews like this in 2009, you can bet he’ll earn a ticket to Europe.

PEZ: You have had success domestically, do you want to try your hat in Europe?
Zirbel: I would like to take my career as far as it can go and that’s definitely the pinnacle of any cycling career. So, yeah, I kind of got the bug last year. I did one pseudo race in Italy, Gran Fondo Pinarello, and loved the venue, loved the country and the food and everything else. [ed. Zirbel placed second.] So, I would definitely like to try it. I don’t know if I’m cut out for it, but I’m beginning to think that the gap isn’t as big as I was once led to believe.

PEZ: Speaking of good food, how do you keep your body fat at 5% in November?
Zirbel: I just keep eating. You can’t let your metabolism slow down. It’s pretty ridiculous how much I can eat and still lose weight when I’m training. I see other people eating like birds and it’s just not fair. If I limit myself to one bowl of ice cream, then I lose weight.

PEZ: Ice cream or gelato?
Zirbel: I like gelato better, but it’s pretty expensive, so I’m usually an ice cream guy. I like my chocolate but the pistachio gelato at Glacier is pretty bad ass.

Having spent some time on the bike and chatting over coffee, I was left with the impression that Tom Zirbel is a very laid back guy for someone who has tasted consistent success domestically. He seems confident in his training schedule and keeps a good sense of humor, despite the harsh setback of broken bones he experienced last season. Let’s watch for great things from Tom in 2009.

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