Sunday, February 28, 2010

UPDATED: The Courage to Never Look Back

So Tom Zirbel officially retired. Or at least he tried to convince himself that he's capable of retiring. I really feel for the guy, for he made a statement that reveals the horror that awaits him on a daily basis, as he desperately longs to return to living the life of a pro, all the while knowing at best it will be two long years before he can turn a pedal in anger (Disclaimer: I don't know what TZ is really thinking - this is just a blog post; don't get bent and accuse me of speaking for Tom or misrepresenting anything - I'm only giving my semi-professional opinion). Anyway, Zirbel said:

“Now that I've made the determination that I really could and would walk away from the sport forever, it's liberating. USADA, WADA, and the UCI no longer have power over me. But I will continue to jump through a few hoops (if not neither too high nor on fire) in order to leave the option open for a return in years to come (though I sort of hope I have the courage to begin a completely new career and never look back).”

"...though I sort of hope I have the courage to begin a completely new career and never look back.”

So many people think I am a bastard and should be anally-raped in prison, or that I'm an emotional wreck after losing a wife, never meeting my son and experiencing financial ruin after my doping positive. Sure, I'd like some more emotional support, but God help the pro cyclist kicked out of his sport when he was just entering his prime and about to sign a ProTour contract, forced into a (doping-derived) retirement yet boasting:

“I've come to the realization that I would rather be a David Benke [math school teacher who rushed a gunman on his campus] than a Cancellara. I would rather help the boy I'm mentoring graduate from college and break the cycle of poverty in his family than win a Pro Tour TT. To me, the life I'm choosing from this day on is more challenging and potentially rewarding than the life of training to ride in a straight line really fast for 40 minutes. For whatever reason, I haven't been able to do both so it's time to step back and re-prioritize.”

"...though I sort of hope I have the courage to begin a completely new career and never look back.”

While we were soft-pedaling at the back of the bunch in one of the greatest stage races in Latin America, the now-defunct Vuelta a Chile, the classy Colombian climber Ivan Parra (then riding for Kelme, but pictured below taking a stage in the Giro) told me that (and I paraphrase) "Pro cycling is like a disease or an addiction, a sickness that we cannot cure ourselves of. I am just lucky to be good enough at it to earn a living that provides a comfortable life for my family."

During one of my last races in Italy, the GF Valli Parmensi, I wept as I led the field in a single-file line for dozens of kilometers with only modest help from my teammates (I was working for them, on sort of a suicide mission or something out of Gallipoli - though we'd go on to finish 1-2-3). Our medical prep for the day consisted of the usual EPO, HGH and Synacthen, but we'd also been dosed with some form of pot belge. Of course I was cheating, in the wrong, morally bankrupt and a scoundrel, but like Parra said, the love for the bike and il ciclismo was itself an addiction. I knew full well that my career would be over in a matter of weeks because I'd cheated myself and my sport, and the pain that realization caused in my heart was one-thousand times worse than the burning in my legs that I still felt, even with an Hct of 55. I was a doper. Tom Zirbel says he wasn't, though USADA says he is and Tom didn't contest the two-year ban he received - neither did I. But what's salient is the fact that, doped or not, caught cheating or safe-for-another-day, some riders come to love cycling so much that the fabric of their very souls is stitched into the rich tapestry of the sport. I was one of them. Maybe Tom Zirbel is not. But to "sort of hope" that you "have the courage to...never look back" is to all but admit that you, too, live to ride and ride to live.

Good luck, Tom Zirbel, but take it from me, you're probably going to look back - maybe infrequently, or maybe every goddamn give me a call if you need to talk.

[UPDATED: Please follow through to the comments as there are some very powerful responses from first-time commentators and veteran readers alike. All are welcome.]


  1. Joe,

    You told me the other day to call something out if it sounds like BS, so I am going to go ahead and do that. Please for a minute do not think that addictive part of bicycle racing is only felt in the pro ranks. Those of us racing masters and not even at the top level of the sport are equally addicted to the spin, the potential of a win (not one yet), the thrill of victory and yes, the agony of defeat. Why else would we get up at 4:30 AM to get in a three hour weekday ride before reporting to work, have a house filled with bikes, training equipment, clothing, and powermeters? Leave our warm bed and wife sleeping behind to hit the road at 5:00 AM in 20 degree temps on snow and ice covered roads?

    And when we have to leave racing behind, for family, career, etc, it never really leaves us either. During those times, which have been temporary thankfully for me, we miss the sport more than anything else in life. I wish there was a way for you to return to the sport, to feel those things. I really feel sorry for you, because I think you would return if you were able, but it seems you are stuck. I hope you are able to put your legal issues behind you quickly, leave them behind like the rest of the fields you decimated during your career.

  2. Sounds like Zirbel might be in for a rough ride of his own. All that over some stupid DHEA. At least if you're going to throw away your racing career by doping, get caught with the heavy artillery or something really exotic like cat-piss hemoglobin extract...

  3. Joe

    That was the best piece you've written.
    That sums it all up.

    It's an addiction that makes us who we are.
    At our best and worst.

  4. Joe,
    I would have to agree with Anonymous #1. The addiction is not confined to the pros. I myself have been riding and racing for over 15 years with a heart condition. Starting each ride not knowing if my heart would allow me to finish or cause me to struggle and call for somebody to come get me. I have completed races that I shouldn't have due to this but could not bring myself to quit, even when the pain, due to lactic build up in my entire body do to my heart rhythm problem, was excruciating.
    And as I sit here an write this I am anxiously awaiting another season to begin. Hopefully to be better since my surgery last August.
    I to wish gods speed and purpose to you during these troubling times.

  5. Anon. 28 February, 2010 07:16:

    Firstly, thanks for your comment - if I knew who you were I'd invite you to write a guest post. In fact, email me at joe at joepapp dot com and let's work something out - because you've obviously got mad skillz as a wordsmith and a passion for the bike.

    Secondly, I apologize if the tone of my post in any way conveyed a sense that the addictive nature of cyclesport is limited only to pros. I think the "withdrawal" is worst felt by a pro banished from the sport because of something like a doping suspension or career-ending injury (or just plain old age or poor economics). But by no means is the power to enchant something that the bike reserves only for those in the paid ranks. In fact, he who rides not for a paycheck but simply for the love of sport may argue that his passion is purer and his addiction even more serious!

    Perhaps what would help clarify the emphasis I was placing on the "displaced pro" experience is the fact that I try to look at it from the perspective of a man who has not developed his escape route and doesn't have a post-pedaling plan in place. Contrast that with the equally-dedicated amateur (non-professional) who, relatively, makes the same effort and sacrifices and manifests the same dedication and discipline as the pro, but, if forced out of the sport, still enjoys a significant percentage of identity and sense of self independent of bike racing (career, family, community/civic involvement). Pro bike racers live out of suitcases for half the year, might have two residences and just as many passports, exist in 24-hour microcycles dedicated to training or racing, eating, resting and recovering. Normal things that build connections to a stable community for the most part don't exist on the road.

    Now that's a broad generality, I'll admit it, but anecdotal evidence supports my position (just one man's opinion in the end, right?). One friend is actually just getting into road cycling as a hobby, after four years as a medical device sales rep. But before that he was a minor league ballplayer for several years after a solid college career. While "working for the man" (as he describes it) brings-in six-figures and made it possible for him to buy a top-of-the-line SRAM Red-equipped carbon bike with nary a second's pause for thought, he says not a day goes by that he doesn't miss the sense of purpose and fulfillment he realized playing ball - and that was when he was earning about $900/month. But just like Zirbel, Ullrich, Horrillo, the Ochoa brothers in Spain, even me and many more - he was so focused on being the best athlete he could be (and he did it without taking vitamins, let alone doping - perhaps having adopted an ascetic routine that might have been more appropriate in a monastery) that when his run as an active participant in elite sport ended, he was discombobulated, to say the least. Granted, he succeeded in forging a new career - and a well-paying one at that - whereas one of the Ochoa's is dead, Horrillo is lucky to be able to walk; Ullrich was hounded out of the sport in disgrace... But my friend often looks back at baseball and wishes he had made the cut. Zirbel is right to be worried.

    Perhaps someday I'll write about him more, as his story is an interesting one, for he truly played clean, and what made the difference between his not getting to The Show (while teammates and competitors who were no more talented than he did) was the difficulty he had recovering during the grueling minor league season. Baseball is so often thought of as a power game, where muscle mass and strength and speed are pumped up with doses of steroids and HGh, but it's also about recovery - and just like racing a Grand Tour, the player who can reach closest to 100% of his absolute peak performance day after day after day is the one who will most likely progress to the major leagues. And my friend didn't even like to take vitamins...

  6. Hmmm, that last comment might require re-posting as a post. Anyway, moving on...

    Anon. 28 February, 2010 08:19: maybe TZ *was* using the heavy artillery, except just not when he was tested. Or maybe he really got screwed by a false positive (I dunno though...if I was wrongly accused of doping, I don't think I would have quit the fight until it was no longer financially possible to mount a defense.).

    Flandrian - thanks.

  7. Affib Rider:

    Our comments must have crossed in cyberspace, as I clarified (in a comment long enough to be a post!) that I agree that this "addiction" to cycling that we seem to suffer is by no means exclusive to the professional peloton.

    Anon. 28 February, 2010 07:16:

    You wrote:

    "I wish there was a way for you to return to the sport, to feel those things. I really feel sorry for you, because I think you would return if you were able, but it seems you are stuck. I hope you are able to put your legal issues behind you quickly, leave them behind like the rest of the fields you decimated during your career."

    Thanks for these genuine and heartfelt words. I, too, wish there was a path through this leading back to cycling, but only time will tell. Nonetheless, I hope that even the fans and cyclists like Floyd Landis and Nick Price who loathe me see the value in my being able to tell my story far and wide. While I think Nick is himself a sociopath for advocating and cheering the hypothetical raping of me in prison (see:, the incentive to dope may be lessened as the severity of the consequences of being caught increase and become more tangible and apparent.

    I don't plan for where I am now to be my final station in life, for the story would lack value without redemption, but it's in the disgrace and dishonor that the anti-doping message crystallizes: it's just not worth it; don't follow the same path that I took to arrive here.

  8. I never thought to call my love for biking an addiction or disease, since it was always something that was a positive force in my life. But I can see how it might become pathological if it led down a path of doping, drugs and despair.

    "St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen."

  9. God may be able to do all that but can he ride the stones in a crosswind?

    That was not an attempt to turn this in to a forum of religious debate. It was merely similar to a great t-shirt I saw in the 80's.

    " Jesus saves! But Gretzky scores on the rebound"

  10. I don't know if God could ride the cobbles, but VDB sure could. Where are all the VDB fans out there? Anyone want to pitch in on the creation of the site? I need to host it and get a graphic designer to whip up a holding page and modify a template set for the site pages. Don't make me beg, people! (haha that's such a lame request that I should be shot...VDB deserves better than that, but Flandrian was supposed to take the reigns on memorializing VDB online. He wrote a kick ass bit of original verse instead, titled "The Weight" -

  11. Joe, I have to say my first reaction to Zirbil's statements was pretty positive. Those were big picture things he said about doing something meaningful in his life. It was actually inspiring to hear him say he wanted to do something for others again.

    After all the non-apologies and bullshit from people like Vino and Ricco and Di Luca, I found that so refreshing and honest.

    But I also saw the wistfullness and regret in some of those lines. He's going to suffer terribly missing the sport. Guilty or not, I feel for the guy.

  12. Matt, I should clarify that in no way am I attacking the credibility of TZ's statements or his intent. I'm simply saying that, based on what others might characterize as a minor admission of regret or longing ("...though I sort of hope I have the courage to begin a completely new career and never look back.”), TZ may have a difficult time doing just that.

    As for TZ's doing a non-Ricco or non-DiLuca (but didn't Ricco admit to using CERA, while TZ denies using DHEA? lol the irony) the cynic could say that he didn't have DiLuca's salary to lose, so why would he bother with the major "I am Innocent" PR campaign...

    But at the end of the day, Zirbel's talking about surviving the human condition. And as easily as you are able to take inspiration from TZ's words, while recoiling at DiLuca, Vino and Ricco, another blogger cheers at the thought of my being anally-raped for doping-related transgressions. And I'm over here in Pittsburgh reading Tom Zirbel's statement and hoping that he finds that courage, because it is elusive and cycling is a very, very heady tonic.

    Off the top of my head I was trying to think of a couple of top Euro-pro's who were axed from the peloton for doping and saw their careers end - but I could only come up with Roberto Heras... Wonder how he's doing?

  13. Pappillon, I tend to agree with Twisted Spoke Matt - Zirbel's goodbye seems genuine enough, especially the foreshadowing of a more meaningful role in society. But part of me can't help wondering if that's not just crafty rhetoric, if the guy was so dissatisfied with his life as a pRO and felt he couldn't contribute adequately to society, why was he poised to sign with Garmin and become even more PRO still?

  14. How fucked would it be for Zirbel if Papp somehow was able to have given up the goods on him (maybe TZ was dirty?), and here is Papp offering the poor bastard a shoulder to cry on after his career is dead and buried. Fuuuuuck.

  15. Some other Euro-pros who were axed and now don't have a career...Santiago Perez, Raimondas Rumšas, Dario Frigo, Aitor Gonzalez, even Floyd Landis now! He isn't making a career of it anymore is he?

    There are tons of others, but it is interesting to think about how many top riders have just vanished...

  16. Just an aside, Rumsas - after his ban - was racing as recently as 2006 in Italy as an amateur, and being paid very well to do so. Granted, not the same as racing the Tour, but he was still on the bike. Not sure now. My heart goes out to the poor, innocent bastards like Sevilla, Santi Botero, Fred Rodriguez, et al who cast their lot with Ball, Michael Asshole.


Pappillon welcomes your comments and encourages your participation. However, in commenting, you agree that you will not:1) Post material that infringes on the rights of any third party, including intellectual property, privacy or publicity rights. 2) Post material that is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, threatening, harassing, abusive, slanderous, hateful, or embarrassing to any other person or entity as determined by Pappillon in its sole discretion. 3) Impersonate another person.