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Roll change; Ex-runner, ex-skier are the big wheels.

Byline: Rich Garven

WESTMINSTER - The spirit of Arthur Longsjo was alive and well as the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic, the cycling race that bears the name and hometown of the former two-sport Olympian, got under way for the 50th time.

Tom Zirbel, an ex-collegiate distance runner, was a runaway winner in the men's pro 1 division of the Marriott by Courtyard South Street Time Trial yesterday. Fellow Colorado resident Alison Powers, a former World Cup skier, finished first in a competitive women's pro 1/2 field.

Powers had the hottest set of wheels in unseasonably cool but all-too-familiar conditions that saw dense fog give way to a light mist. The Team Type 1 rider covered the 8.89 miles of the out-and-back course in 19 minutes, 54.89 seconds.

That was good for a lead of 4 seconds over up-and-coming Evelyn Stevens, a former collegiate tennis player and the only other cyclist in the field of 113 to go under 20 minutes.

"The fog was awesome," Powers said while rhythmically pedaling a stationary bike during a postrace cool-down in a nearby parking lot. "I've never raced in conditions like that before."

Powers, 29, grew up in Winter Park, Colo., learning to downhill ski at her hometown resort. She harbored legitimate Olympic aspirations before shattering her left kneecap during a World Cup race in Austria in 2001.

Powers returned to racing two years later, but quit for good in midseason 2004.

"I was scared," she freely admitted, "and when you're going 70 miles per hour downhill, being scared isn't a good thing."

An avid mountain biker before the injury, Powers found that type of riding to be hard on her rehabbed knee. So she switched to the road, turned pro in 2006, and remarkably won the U.S. national time trial championship last year in Irvine, Calif.

Befitting her national champion status, Powers is allowed to wear a specially awarded skin suit when competing in time trials. It's a title she personally defends each time out.

"I was hoping to win," Powers said. "Any time you wear a national champion skin suit, you want to defend it, whether there are other countries here or not."

The Longsjo, as always, has a nice international flavor to it. Canadian Anne Samplonius of Team Lip Smacker was third (20:03.63), renowned Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo fourth (20:08.27), and defending champion Catherine Cheatley of New Zealand 15th.

They'll all be back out there today for the Fitchburg State College Circuit Race, the second test of this four-day stage race.

On the men's side, Zirbel was 10th out of the chute, but none of the 161 contenders/pretenders to follow came close to touching the Bissell Pro Cycling rider's time of 17:15.16. Scott Zwizanski was nearly 23 seconds back, with fellow Kelly Benefits Strategies teammates David Veilleux and Zach Bell grabbing third and fourth, respectively.

Mike Friedman, the U.S. Olympian who races overseas for Spanish-based Garmain-Slipstream, was 11th. Defending champion Kyle Wamsley finished 40th.

"I've worked on my time trial position a little bit - it's all about how aero you can get - and our equipment is second to none," Zirbel said. "Those two things contribute to a good time trial, and I have those things in my favor right now."

Zirbel was a runner while attending high school and college in his native Iowa. He got serious about cycling in 2004 and turned pro two years later at the semi-advanced age of 28.

But it hasn't taken long for Zirbel to go from standing out in the cycling crowd - he's 6-foot-4 and 194 pounds - to being a standout cyclist. Although considered a time trial specialist, he was seventh overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas in May and second at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota last month.

Remarkably, Zirbel lost the yellow jersey on the next-to-last lap on the fifth and final day of racing his last time out. It's a defeat he would prefer not to look back on, although he has tried to view it as a lesson learned while going forward.

"It's still a new experience for me," Zirbel said. "I'm learning every day. There are so many aspects to this sport if you want to be good at it."

Zirbel is aware there's a lot of racing to go. He also made it known he isn't here in search of a single stage win.

"I assume we're going to play our cards and try to stick with the goal of a general classification win," Zirbel said. "I'm fortunate, I feel, to have the best team here, and they'll do their best to protect me."

Zirbel, the former runner, and Powers, the ex-skier, produced the best efforts in Stage 1, times noted two-sporter Arthur Longsjo would be proud of.



CUTLINE: (1) Daniel Estevez takes off to begin his time trial run on Day 1 of the Longsjo. (2) Alison Powers speaks after turning in the fastest run in the women's time trial.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 3, 2009
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