Monday, May 27, 2013

Helmets off to new national champions, Tom Zirbel and Fred Rodriguez

Big Tom Zirbel. Photo: © Jonathan Devich
Chattanooga proved a city of redemption for Freddie Rodriguez and Big Tom Zirbel.

Rodriguez captured a record fourth U.S. road championship, just months after desperately searching for a team. Rodriguez took the sprint after reeling in Phil Gaimon and edged Brent Bookwalter and Kiel Reijnen.

"I knew exactly what I had to do and just hung with the leaders," Rodriguez told the breathless Robbie Ventura after the race.

Zirbel won the time trial on Saturday and animated the road race on Monday, hanging with the lead group.

Until three weeks ago, the 39-year-old Rodriguez was unemployed, signing with Jelly Belly. His palmares -- cycling for resume -- includes national titles in 2000, 2001 and 2004, stage wins at the Giro, Tour de Suisse and Tour de Luxembourg and podium finishes at Milan-San Remo and Gent Wewelgem


Kudos to the sprinter and Zirbel for hanging with the climbers for four ascents of Lookout Mountain. To get a sense of how steep Lookout Mountain is: I covered a basketball regional in Chattanooga in 2005. My rental car overheated on the ascent, and I could smell the rubber from the near-constant use of the brakes on the descent. Repeating that process four times would have sent the Chevy Aveo to an early grave.

Matthew Busche of Radio Shack blew apart the field on the final ascent, taking off on an escapade that left just 19 riders within striking distance. Phil Gaimon  pulled away on the finishing circuits around Chattanooga, building a lead of 30 seconds with one 5-mile lap remaining. He rode the final circuit aggressively until pooping out. The chasers lacked organization until Busche attacked and caught Gaimon with one kilometer remaining.

At 6-5 and 200 pounds, Big Tom Zirbel is no one's idea of a prototypical bike racer. Too tall, too heavy. But he broke through with a victory in the time trial Saturday, finishing the 31 km course in 38 minutes, 16.03 seconds.

Zirbel's victory was especially sweet. He was suspended for doping late in 2009, but his suspension was shortened because he cooperated with USADA. Despite the doping sanction, the gangly Zirbel is a fan favorite. He's been a bridesmade twice, in 2008 and 2011. BMC's Brent Bookwalter finished second; Tennessee native Nathan Brown of Bontrager Cycling was third.

"It's a cliche, but it's going to take a while to sink in," Zirbel told reporters. "I'm just kind of worked over right now. I'm spent both physically and emotionally. I don't know how I would be feeling if I was third or second again this year because I try to not put too much pressure on myself. I just want to get the most out of myself, and I felt like I did that."