Comeback cyclist Chad Gerlach living on the streets again
By Blair Anthony Robertson
Published: Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 16A
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009 - 5:08 pm
Chad Gerlach's comeback from five years of homelessness and drugs to
the heights of pro bike racing was the stuff of legend, a triumphant U-
turn in his life that startled fellow racers and fans alike.
But the cheering has suddenly stopped. Gerlach has not only quit
racing, he has returned to living on the streets - spotted frequently
in midtown Sacramento, glassy-eyed and red-faced, wearing dirty
Throughout the spring and summer, Gerlach, 36, trained five hours a
day, won races, dominated opponents, electrified fans and prompted
worldwide media interest.
Now, the man who finished fifth racing against Lance Armstrong in June
before 20,000 spectators in Nevada City, who lapped a national-caliber
field in Truckee days earlier, has been reduced to asking passers-by
for spare change.
Records show Sacramento police picked him up on Sept. 25 for suspected
public drunkenness. His father, Peter Gerlach, says he got his son
into drug rehab about three weeks ago, but Chad didn't stick it out.
It's a sudden downward spiral for someone whose very public battle
with addiction had inspired many.
A sudden relapse
For more than a decade, Chad Gerlach, who grew up in Fair Oaks, was
legendary among local cyclists, known as someone who squandered his
talent and partied away his best racing years. Though Gerlach had won
many races, he became disillusioned by the low pay and quit the sport
His public profile rose considerably last year when he was the subject
of several episodes of the reality TV show "Intervention" on A&E
because of his crack ******* and alcohol abuse. Even today, Gerlach
often is recognized from the show while panhandling.
One recent afternoon, Hector Velasquez, a former methamphetamine
addict, stopped to chat.
"I told him that just what you have done already has helped a lot of
people," said Velasquez, who has been clean for three years and co-
owns an auto repair shop. "Your story and your struggle give other
people strength, and you're letting a lot of people down."
Though glib, brimming with enthusiasm and eager to be interviewed when
The Bee chronicled his comeback in January, Gerlach has repeatedly
declined to talk to The Bee about his recent setback.
"I've had a wonderful summer vacation," he said while panhandling on a
recent Saturday night outside Safeway on 19th Street. "I'll be back
racing next year."
His Italian-based pro team learned of the relapse only when Gerlach
stopped showing up for major races in July, following his standout
performance at the Fourth of July Criterium in Davis.
After that race, Gerlach shrugged off his showing and said, "I was
feeling a little flat today."
That day, those who knew him well already worried that his sobriety
was slipping. His friend Joe "Vito" Accettura maintains Gerlach was
nursing a hangover on the Fourth of July. Peter Gerlach said his son
also was hung over the morning he drove to Truckee in June, where he
nonetheless lapped the field in the first stage and went on to win the
overall title in the prestigious Tour de Nez race.
Races are not the only thing Gerlach has missed, either. Asked about
the recent birth of his daughter, he said, "I need to call and find
out what color her eyes are, and what color her hair is."
"When I heard he was back on the streets, I couldn't believe it," said
Cristian Fanini, owner and manager of the Amore & Vita cycling team,
which had signed Gerlach as a goodwill gesture after hearing about his
battle with drugs.
Speaking by telephone from Italy, Fanini said, "He is an extraordinary
talent. He could be like Lance Armstrong if he wanted to. At the same
time, he is uncoachable. ... He's a fighter. When he's on his bike, he
becomes another person."
Fanini has tried repeatedly in recent weeks to contact Gerlach, he
said. Race sponsors enamored of the compelling comeback story continue
to request Gerlach's presence at races.
"A story like this gets the interest of everybody in the world,"
Fanini said. "I had commitments from sponsors who were coming to the
race to cheer for him. I sent all the details to Chad and was begging
him to tell me what was going on."
Fanini said Gerlach is welcome to rejoin the team for next season. In
fact, he offered to fly him to Italy even if he doesn't want to race,
just to "get him off the streets and away from drugs."
Amore & Vita, meaning "love and life," has ties to the Vatican and
originally offered Gerlach a spot specifically because of his past. A
previous team member, recovering drug addict Valentino Fois, had
relapsed and died from a heroin overdose in March 2008.
"When I heard about Chad, I wanted to hire him," Fanini said. "I
wanted to save someone because the first time I failed."
No recovery in sight
Though he has not given up, Gerlach's father considers prospects for
another recovery uncertain at best.
"I'm afraid he's going to die on the streets," Peter Gerlach said
Two weeks ago, he said, he persuaded his son to enter a four-day detox
at a cost of $1,240. But Chad, he said, left after two days.
"All kinds of thoughts go through your head," Peter Gerlach said, "
'Where was he last night? Was he in an alley somewhere, stabbed? Is he
bleeding to death? Did he OD?' "
Others have given up. Accettura, the friend who arranged for Gerlach's
appearance on "Intervention," said he has lost patience since the
relapse. He often rode with Gerlach and attended the races to cheer
"I'm done. I'm exhausted. I gave him his last shot," he said. "There's
no talking to that guy."
On a late September evening, Gerlach sat under the freeway overpass on
16th Street with six other homeless people.
When a Bee reporter offered him a brownie from the nearby Tower Cafe,
Gerlach scoffed and said, "No thanks. All that sugar is bad for you."
Those unfamiliar with the life of addicts have been bewildered by
what's happening to Gerlach, but drug counselor David Husid is not
Referring to the "Intervention" show, Husid said, "Yeah, maybe he was
a really good cyclist, but what else is he going to do? I watched him
and thought, 'There's a guy who has set himself up for failure.' "
Husid, a recovering addict, is project director of Quinn Cottages, a
transitional housing program for the homeless. He estimates he himself
relapsed 30 times with meth before finally turning his own life
"People say you have to hit bottom, but come on, he's out on the
streets," he said of Gerlach. "How much lower can you get?"
"Until he realizes he's not all that," he continued, "until he
surrenders to the program and realizes he's just an average guy, he's
never going to figure it out."
When spotted by The Bee on a recent Friday night, Gerlach said he was
again set to enter a detox facility the following Monday. Then, his
father said, Chad got in touch to say he needed an extra day to "take
care of some loose ends."
On Tuesday, Chad Gerlach failed to show.