The news of Tom Zirbel’s positive test for DHEA was a shock to many, even those of us at Pappillon with a more cynical view of the sport (hardened by experience). But, with only an “A”-sample result and no B, let alone an arbitration hearing, there still exists the possibility that Zirbel will prove his innocence.
No one enjoys watching the unmasking of their heroes as sporting frauds, and many will continue to believe in a doper’s innocence long after circumstantial evidence says otherwise, but before the final verdict is delivered (be it by USADA or CAS). One of our contributors had this to say on the matter:
“[Innocent-because-he-is-nice fan says:] ‘I just don’t believe that a //BLANK// would cheat…it can’t be true…!‘
Please insert the following for //BLANK//, as you see fit:
- Nice Guy
- Amish dude
- Cancer Survivor
- Well-educated person
- Guy who swore he was clean to Congress
- Mother of two
- Person who went on Oprah
- Hero to millions
- etc. etc. etc.
I’ve heard it all, man. You can’t believe anyone anymore.”
Now if that’s not cynical, we don’t know what is! In the spirit of “we’ve heard it all before,” Pappillon will soon run a series of old articles on doping from the 1980′s to highlight an era of our sport’s history in this country that many – unfortunately – would rather soon forget. We’re not embarking upon this to air dirty laundry, but rather, to remind the US cycling scene that nice guys do dope – even when they’re wearing the stars-and-stripes, and hell, even if what they did technically wasn’t doping at the time.
Fourth in the Worlds Elite TT, second only to Zabriskie in the US TT champs and with a Garmin contract neatly signed. But scratch all of the above and file under, “Another one bites the dust !” albeit the ‘B’ sample might just be ‘clean.’ We asked Paul Coats, who’s a lecturer at Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy & Biomedical Sciences, for an expert view.
“Zirbel, Jesus who knows these days!
Seems a strange one though, as I mentioned to you when you asked me about Landis; testosterone or any of the androgens are only useful for recovery.
And you can beat the test if you are smart and most pros are, or at least they have someone keeping them right.
Long gone are the days of using steroids, too easily detected. Only dumb asses get caught on test these days, my gran mother knows that. DHEA is a pro hormone and is metabolised to more active testosterone, produced naturally and can also be taken as supplement.
Its readily available to buy on internet; first Google hit: http://www.cybervitamins.com/dhea.htm
The problem with supplements used in body building is that they add DHEA without listing it.
Thus making the customer think the product is great and they buy more.
This was a big problem a couple years ago; in the USA there were a few well documented cases of track athletes testing positive due to protein supplements which were contaminated (so the manufacturer said) with DHEA.
Now all the reputable supplement manufacturers provide test results to show their products are free from substances that may produce positive result.
Zirbel will know what he has taken, he clearly has tested positive and unless there is a total screw up his B sample will be positive.
It would be useful if the numbers were presented; then we could see how much was in his system.
He states on Cycling News he knows nothing and is ignorant of all this kind of thing.
Well, we know all pros know this game inside out and he is seasoned pro.
Diet will be a major factor in his training and I’m sure he knows exactly what supplements and food he has taken, so what’s happened?
1) His body produces high DHEA, ok, why not tested high before? So unlikely.
2) Someone spiked his recovery drink, wild claim, possible but unlikely.
3) He took a supplement contaminated with DHEA, possible yes it happened in the past, but nowadays quality supplements come with quality control, also he’s probably taking the same supplements as others on his Bissel team – they have not tested positive.
Unless he has his own supplements; but as mentioned he will know what he takes and could provide this to authorities to check for DHEA contamination and, in a way, help explain the situation.
4) He is a dumb ass – applying Occam’s razor principle (the simplest explanation or strategy tends to be the best one) 4 seems the most likely.
We will likely never know the truth; but if 4 is correct, what a waste of a great career and potential great 2010 with Garmin.
I cant believe someone at his level can test positive for DHEA, its not like EPO or CERA, it has no big benefits but carries the same penalty
Paul Coats (PhD)Lecturer Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy & Biomedical Sciences.”
‘waste of a great career’ – for sure, Paul.
With thanks to Paul for his time and expertise.
[Editor's note: And thanks to VeloResults UK for making this information available to the readers of Pappillon. We encourage you to visit both sites regularly.]
I don’t know Tom Zirbel as a person so I can’t speak to his character, and I have no first-hand knowledge of his supplement use or medical care (if he received any), let alone whether or not he actually ingested DHEA. But if his B-sample comes back positive or he otherwise fails to clear his name, his world is going to implode, and it won’t be pretty.
Cyclingnews.com reports, “Tom Zirbel has announced he tested positive in an anti-doping test conducted by the United States Anti Doping Association (USADA) following the US Pro time trial championships on August 29, 2009. The A-sample returned positive for an endogenous steroid Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Zirbel awaits the response of the B sample. ‘I want to inform the cycling community that an ‘A’ sample of mine from a urine test conducted by USADA on Aug. 29, 2009 after the US Pro TT has tested positive for exogenous DHEA,’ Zirbel said. ‘I have not yet received notification from USADA on the findings of the ‘B’ sample, but I expect to receive word any day now.’…”
I can empathize with what Zirbel might feel then, should the B-sample come back positive, as you all know that my own career ended when I was just 31 and was caught doping – which was devastating. Worse, almost no one could understand that, even though I’d brought it on myself to a large degree by doping shamelessly for five years, the feeling of being ripped from the womb of cycling left me so disoriented and adrift that life temporarily lost all meaning and hope. So if Tom doped and is found guilty and sanctioned – or if he didn’t dope but is still sanctioned because of a false positive – I want him to know that he’s not alone and there are other cyclists who can understand the hell in which he’ll find himself and can offer their support. Myself included.
Tom’s case isn’t being adjudicated in the US criminal justice system, so the operative theory isn’t “Innocent until Proven Guilty” and given what I know about the sophistication of doping in cycling, the ease with which controls can be thwarted, the capacity of humans to lie, cheat and steal to get to satisfy their ambition, and the fallibility of even the most pious, saintly men, of course I think it’s possible that he doped. However, it’s also possible that it’s a false positive, though the statistical likelihood of such an anomaly is slight, if I remember correctly.
If Tom is going to first be tried in a court of public opinion, well, then he sure sounds guilty when he says something as disingenuous as “I didn’t knowingly ingest any DHEA,” “I’m ignorant about these things, I didn’t know what DHEA was until I was first notified about my A sample positive.” [ref] Hey, guess what? I didn’t knowingly ingest the steroid (probably some brand of Testosterone Undecanoate ) that led to my positive urinalysis, though it’s entirely possible that it was there because my team gave me a doping product that metabolized into 6α-OH-androstenedione or 6β-OH-androsterone. Furthermore, it is utterly unbelievable that a professional like Tom Zirbel who earns his living from the bike and who would eventually negotiate a contract with a ProTour team for 2010, wouldn’t know what DHEA was as of late-summer 2009, when it was THE doping product that effectively ended Tyler Hamilton’s career – in APRIL 2009.
BUT, by the same token, and in Tom’s defense, the lab very well have made an error. Just like I didn’t knowingly ingest anything that could have left the metabolites 6α-OH-androstenedione or 6β-OH-androsterone, I had taken five other doping products that an accredited-lab failed to detect. I hope people consider both scenarios while we wait for the official disclosure. USADA is a very professional, well-run, seemingly fair organization, and they don’t strike me as being the type of people who persecute athletes. In fact, USADA is scrupulous about protecting the privacy of accused athletes, such that when I called a contact there today to discuss the “Zirbel Situation,” he wasn’t even aware that the cyclist had gone ahead and preemptively announced his A-sample result. USADA would have kept that private until well after the B-sample was analyzed (assuming it was also positive and the athlete chose to continue to defend against the charges). A lab, however, that made an error in analyzing a sample or reporting its findings would have a strong disincentive to publicly admit that and an unethical employee or lab director might hang an athlete out to dry. Might.
I know for a fact that a rider was positive for EPO when he won a US National Criterium Championship – he took a full-strength, non-micro dose within the time frame during which he should have been positive. In fact, his “A” sample WAS positive, but his “B” was declared negative because the EPO levels were interpreted to fall just below the cut-off for a definitive positive. So the labs can make mistakes. Guilty go free (only to be caught later). Some riders cheat. I hope most do not. But to be in Tom’s shoes right now is to be in hell and I wish him and his family the best regardless of what the truth of the matter is.
Q: “Are you a doctor?”
A: “No, I was a pro cyclist.”
Answer given in response to a real doctor’s question following my question while in the ER with a friend about what gauge needle he was going to use to drain an abscess (which itself could have been the result of a poorly-administered IM injection). I asked if he’d be using a 22g or a 21g or what, and while he answered almost immediately, without thinking, then he must have THOUGHT about it and was surely wondering, “Hmmm, not very common for a patient’s friend to be asking needle-gauge questions.” And the sad truth is that back in the late-1990′s and early-2000′s, any cyclist worth his lot who was enmeshed in the doping culture knew exactly what size needle to use, when, and what gauge was best for an IM injection into his tush; what his preferred butterfly kit was; even what size needle to use to draw the liquid (EPO, corticoid, anabolic, actovegin, whatever…) out of a given ampuoule and into the syringe, before switching to a new needle for injecting.
Like David Millar, who revealed in his interview with NY Velocity, “I knew I was going to get caught. I wanted to get caught, it was my only way out,” I realize now that when I’d reached the point where I could administer an IV injection to myself with greater skill than a trained nurse, just to ride faster on my bike, I both wanted and needed to get out – even if I couldn’t admit that to myself at the time.
The (painfully-honest) interview I did with Myles McCorry of Bike Pure has has been circulating more widely now, appearing on sites in Australia and Pez in Canada – all of which is good for the clean-sport message we’re trying to promote. You don’t need drugs to race your bike – or to compete in any sport for that matter. Yes, drugs can make you faster in the short-term, but at a cost that should be seen as unacceptably high (in addition to being illegal, unethical, immoral and dangerous). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I would give the equivalent of my “left nut” to be able to rewind time and stay off the dirty doping road. Since I can’t, I tell my story and don’t hide how doping destroyed my sporting career and imperiled my life, but explain that I’m doing my best to adapt to this new reality and fulfill the prediction that was made in 1999, when I was “awarded as a special honor…[the] designation as a University Scholar – one who shows high promise of significant contribution to society and progress” by the University of Pittsburgh…
Last week I delivered two lectures at Slippery Rock University on the same topic and look forward to additional speaking engagements and opportunities to share my story in the service of clean sport and protecting the next generation of cyclists from the same evils that befell me.
“Hi. My name is Robot, and I am an alcoholic. Fortunately, for me, I’ve been able to stay sober for the past seventeen years, much of that time with the help of a bicycle and the myriad benefits that particular piece of machinery bestows upon its frequent users.
I bring up my alcoholism to make a point about doping that I think escapes most who would judge a young rider harshly for straying down the garden path of EPO, CERA, Ozone, transfusions and testosterone trickery.
And that is, the dope can be addictive…” Read more at Red Kite Prayer.
Ed Hood interviews Tyler Hamilton – my roommate during a try-out with Montgomery-Bell – for PEZ. It’s the first I’ve heard from the “Engima” since he basically went into hiding after his second positive, and the interview is fascinating and accompanied by great photos. Love him or hate him, I hope that Tyler’s battle with depression is one that he wins, because it’s in those darkest moments that one can pass irretrievably into the abyss. If you could only ask Luca Gelfi or Christophe Dupouey, they’d say the same, I’m sure.
I’m reproducing the intro to the interview here, along with the first question and two photos. Click through to Pez for the full text and the complete portfolio of magnificent images. And remember, as I wrote in August, mental illness haunts pro sports – and athletes are humans, too, with limited coping mechanisms and breaking points and only a finite capacity to suffer, even if you perceive that limit to be infinitely greater than your own. Because of the complexity of the calculus that athletes must make when deciding whether or not to dope, it is nearly impossible for punters and laymen and even recreational racing cyclists who’ve never practiced sport as a profession to truly understand the intersection between villain, victimization, criminal innocent and naive man-child, yet so many have no qualms about screaming in black and white “Dopers Suck!” and “Go back to your cave and die!” But most athletes caught doping didn’t start practicing sport in order to become modern-day lepers and outcasts, drug traffickers or even, in the case of David Millar, reformed, poster-boy Phoenixes who own professional cycling teams. So someone like Hamilton … if he blew his brains out like Claveyrolat, or died alone, partially clothed in a pool of his own piss and shit and a light dusting of cocaine like Pantani … well, I’d bet that some of you would suddenly not feel so good about having screamed “Dopers Suck!” at the 2008 USPro Champion, either virtually or in person alongside opportunists like Brandon Dwight.
Opening the piece, Hood writes,”Now that the initial furore has died down following the shocking news of Tyler Hamilton’s positive doping test, PEZ thought we should hear what the man himself has to say. It took us a long time and a lot of patience, but eventually he came back to us with the answers to our questions.
Back from a two year suspension for failing a drugs test after a Vuelta time trial win – a further ‘positive’ from his winning ride in the Olympic time trial championships was rendered null and void due to improper storage of the ‘B’ sample – it looked like all of his demons were behind him in 2008, as he took the US Pro title and the prestigious Qinghai Lakes stage race in China. And then early this year came the news that had us all shaking our heads; another failed test.
But there was no prolonged denial or outrage from the man who has a Liege-Bastogne-Liege win to his credit; just a ready admission that he had taken a medication for his depressive condition which contained proscribed substances. A journalist should never ask his readers rhetorical questions; but I have to – Tyler Hamilton, sinner or sinned against?
PEZ: When did you first feel the effects of depression?
‘That’s a tough question. Probably when I was a young teenager. Looking back, I would have to say during my mid-teen years is when I first experienced symptoms of depression. It was sort of like being in a bit of a fog at times. I was always a quiet and shy kid and I spent a lot of time questioning myself…’