By Blair Robertson
Chad Gerlach’s high-profile comeback to pro cycling after five years of abusing drugs and living on the streets took a reverse this summer as he once again appeared to spiral down into addiction and panhandling.
But more recently, with a new baby and assistance from family and friends, he’s off the street and back on the roads, in addiction treatment and hoping to resume his career.
After six weeks of a dismal life on the streets in his hometown of Sacramento, Gerlach called three days ago and said he was holding his newborn daughter in his arms, that he was devoted to getting clean and was ready to resume his comeback.
“She’s amazing,” Gerlach said, chuckling as he talked about the baby, who was born while he was still on the streets.
Gerlach, who rode for the Italian-based Amore Vita squad this season, vowed to compete again. It remains to be seen what team he will be on. But given his success earlier this season, no one doubts he can get his power and fitness back.
Gerlach, once considered a major talent, left the sport the first time in 2003 and began smoking crack, drinking beer and panhandling to pay for it.
Earlier this year, only months after a much-watched episode of “Intervention” on the A&E network, Gerlach was cleaned up, slimmed down and ready to make his opponents suffer just as he did when he was a dashing young racer on the pre-Lance Armstrong U.S. Postal team in the mid-1990s.
His comeback was for real, as the 6-foot-2, 170-pound powerhouse lapped the field at the opening criterium of the Tour de Nez in late June. At the Nevada stage race, Gerlach won two stages, hung on in the third and claimed the overall title.
Before that, in a near-mythic performance on May 30, he soloed off the front for 70 laps at the U.S. Air Force Clarendon Cup criterium in Arlington, Virginia, coming within seconds of lapping the field as the frenzied crowd cheered him on.
In a matter of months, Gerlach, 36, won five races, finished second eight times and was forever animating the peloton, much to the delight of fans. Topping it off, he raced against Armstrong at the fabled Nevada City Classic, a race he had won 13 years earlier, this time finishing fifth despite dead legs from his Tour de Nez performance two days prior.
Then, after yet another stellar performance at the Lodi, California, criterium, he walked away again.
It was a downward spiral beginning in mid-July that seemed exactly like the previous one in 2003 — back to the booze and the panhandling, to the bewilderment of friends, family and fellow racers once again.
But there are already signs the stumble may be short-lived, that Gerlach will not only reclaim his sobriety but will resume racing next season.
Cristian Fanini, the manager and president of Amore Vita, said that while he liked Gerlach personally, he found him “uncoachable.” Indeed, Gerlach’s father, Peter Gerlach, said his son never possessed the discipline to train consistently, relying on uncanny natural talent and aggressive tactics to win races.
“All Chad does is get on his bike and ride for five hours,” Peter Gerlach said of his son’s training regimen. “It’s all part of that mental make-up. The reason he’s such a good bicycle racer is because he’s stubborn. He’s an arrogant bastard and always will be – and he gets that from me.”
Indeed, even when he was homeless and weeks from his last shower, Gerlach would flirt with women as he asked them for spare change.
Still, Fanini said Gerlach was welcome to return to the team for next season, despite the recent setback. He even offered to move Gerlach to Italy to get him away from his temptations in Sacramento.
Hard roads ahead
Despite the latest good news that Gerlach is off the streets, he has plenty of work to do. The mother of his baby has insisted that he enroll in a treatment program if he is to continue to be around his daughter, according to Peter Gerlach.
Earlier, when his son was still homeless, a frustrated Peter Gerlach said, “One of my fantasies is that I win the lottery, hire an agency with a van and just take him away someplace for the next two years.”
Even Armstrong has taken notice of Gerlach’s recent troubles. After an article appeared Oct. 4 in The Sacramento Bee, Armstrong’s manager, Mark Higgins, contacted the newspaper.
“Lance and I have read the story, talked about it and we were wondering if there was anything Lance could do or say that might help,” Higgins said by telephone from Austin, Texas.
In local cycling circles, Gerlach’s youthful run-in with an up-and-coming Armstrong at a USA Cycling development camp has for years been part of the troubled cyclist’s legend. After the teenage Gerlach mouthed off, Armstrong wrestled him to the ground before other cyclists intervened.
“Lance says he doesn’t remember that, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen,” Higgins said.
In the midst of the comeback this season, there were already signs that Gerlach did not take his sobriety seriously. After handily winning a crit in Auburn against mostly local and regional pros, Gerlach rode the 45 miles back home with a buddy, stopping along the way for a beer.
Ironically, his riding companion was Joe “Vito” Accettura, a local amateur cyclist and the friend who arranged for Gerlach to be on “Intervention” and traveled to the race to cheer on his pal.
During Gerlach’s five-year homeless stint, Accettura had often pleaded with Gerlach to seek help. He finally pinned his hopes on the TV show, which flew Gerlach to Florida and paid for drug and alcohol treatment.
After the Auburn crit, Accettura said he could only watch as Gerlach popped open a beer.
“I said to myself, ‘He’s a big boy. He can have a beer.’ That turned into two or three,” Accettura said. “The week before Lodi, he was out doing his thing. If you watch the video of him winning (July 12), it was like he was thoroughly exhausted, and that’s why.”
Days before Lodi, Gerlach gave hundreds of fans lining the streets in Davis, California, a glimpse of the talent that had always prompted local cycling enthusiasts to wonder what might have been. Had he trained and lived properly, many have wondered, might Gerlach have a Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix title to his name by now, instead of racing for entry fees and meal money?
In the Davis race on the Fourth of July, Gerlach attacked perhaps a dozen times and was clearly the class of the field, riding away from the pack only to see others bridge up to him but fail to do the work to stay out front.
In exasperation, Gerlach shouted halfway through the race, “What the f— are you doing?” to his startled competitors who failed to pull through.
On the final straightaway, there was Gerlach in full flight at the head of the pack with reigning U.S. criterium champion Rahsaan Bahati and former USPRO crit champ Dave McCook in his slipstream. Gerlach remained in the saddle and simply powered his way toward the line, finishing fourth. Bahati bested McCook in a photo finish.
Three weeks later, Gerlach sat slumped in front of a Sacramento grocery store asking shoppers on their way out if they could spare some change.