With the aid of Facebook and Twitter, this article has made the rounds of the Northern California cycling community. Many people have commented on the affair, some praising Chad’s inspirational story, but most disparaging him for his relapse or offering ignorant words of “advice.”
I’ve spent some time reflecting on the situation before posting, because I want to avoid becoming yet another uninformed person injecting my views into Chad’s very public personal life. However, I’ve decided to write my perspective on the story, if for no other reason than to catalog his brief return to the NCNCA in the summer of 2009 and my experience racing with him.
When I first read about Gerlach’s storybook return to professional cycling, I was unimpressed. In fact, I’ve included an excerpt from an email–dated December 14, 2008–that I sent to my friend Justin in response to Chad’s comeback announcement:
“Gotta say though…I cant get all feel-good and warm and fuzzy about a story like this: guy who pretty much just had it all, let himself go, and suddenly gets pro contract after being on TV.”
I’ve heard the name Chad Gerlach since I began my cycling career in Chico, a name uttered in fear, awe, respect and admiration by many of the locals. A Central Valley boy himself, Chad had become legendary not only for his spectacular rise to greatness, but also for his rapid descent into homelessness and drug abuse. He was something I aspired to become and something I feared all at once.
The cynical tone of my December 14th email was influenced by the stories I had heard about Chad as a young cyclist–stories of his unfathomable talent and power–and my belief that he had wasted that talent. I’m not much of a sucker for a fairy tale, and I was skeptical that an appearance on “Intervention” merited a professional contract.
Suffice to say, I was wrong.
From May through July of this year, I spent a bit of time with Chad at races and his influence was nontrivial. I’ll try and illustrate his impact with a series of vignettes from this three-month period of racing.
My first race against Chad was the EBC Criterium in Pleasanton, CA. The sight of the lean, solitary Gerlach riding around before the start, resplendent in his black, McDonald’s-emblazoned euro-pro kit, was intimidating. Justin (my Webcor teammate) and I alternated covering breaks, each containing an anxious Chad Gerlach. Eventually a group of ten riders, including Chad and myself, got off the front and stayed there. Heading into the final lap, Chris Stasny (Davis Bike Club) attacked and no one reacted; I attacked to follow, with Gerlach close behind me. Gerlach won the race, while I was caught by a few other riders and finished in 5th place. As we rolled around the course on a cool-down lap, Chad looked over at me and said, “Nice job going after the Davis kid. We wouldn’t have caught him if you hadn’t attacked.” I smiled and said, “Yeah right, you had that race locked up from the very first lap!” Chad laughed, and said, “OK, you’re right, I still would have caught him, but I’m glad you had the balls to attack.” It was his first win since his comeback, and no matter how small and insignificant the race, he certainly seemed happy to be back on top.
A few weeks later, the Tour de Nez served as a loud and clear statement: the Chad Gerlach of old was back. Regardless of the rumored hangovers and the beginnings of relapse, I witnessed Chad’s definitive omnium victory firsthand and it remains my favorite example of a well-executed domination.
Race after race, I found myself off the front with Gerlach: Chad on his way to victory, me on my way to yet another mediocre lower placing. We began chatting before and after races, joking from time to time. Once, as we sat in the shade waiting for a race to begin, Chad peeled a McDonald’s sponsor sticker off his helmet and stuck it onto the head tube of my bike. He chuckled, I laughed, and then we went about our business attacking the race; he placed third and I finished ninth.
That sticker stayed in its place on my head tube all season, and continues to be a conversation piece. For me, it serves as a reminder not to take my life for granted, or too seriously; I’m neither a professional bike racer nor a recovering drug addict. Life’s good somewhere in between.
One final story serves as a dramatic end to my experience with Chad. In mid-July, Gerlach won the Lodi Criterium, a technical death march through the worst of the summer heat.
It’s hard to tell from the podium photograph, but Sayers and Gerlach were close to physical blows at this point. I’m not sure what transpired between them, or what historical precedent led to such behavior, but nevertheless heated words were exchanged. Gerlach seemed content to take his prizes and leave, while Sayers seemed intent on finishing the argument. Eventually Sayers left, and I wound up talking to Chad a while later. “My team wants me to go to Superweek, but in order to do that I’d have to quit my job,” said Gerlach, “I don’t want to quit my job. I’m enjoying having a job, making consistent money.” He went on to say that he was interested in racing the NRC criterium in Boise the following weekend instead, but didn’t have a way of getting up to Idaho. I knew Webcor might be sending some riders up for the race, so I offered to look for transportation for him. He excitedly thanked me for my help, took down my email address, and said he’d contact me.
He never did, and he hasn’t raced since that day. I’ve periodically wondered where he went, hoping I would hear that he was well and racing elsewhere; this Sunday’s Sacramento Bee article bore the sad news I feared would come.
Now, I’m not saying Gerlach and I were friends, or even acquaintences–we spoke for a few minutes each weekend–and I’m in no way trying to portray Chad Gerlach in a particularly positive light. However, from my perspective he is a decent human being, a funny (if not bizarre) guy, and an unbelievably talented athlete. I respect his talent on the bike more than almost anyone else I’ve raced against, and my meager results benefited from his presence. He’s got a lot of problems, for sure, but he’s certainly not alone: Clinger, Pantani, Ullrich, Hamilton and Vandenbrouke all shared similar stories.
The bottom line is this: I hope Chad returns to cycling–after he addresses whatever obstacles drove him back to poverty–and I hope he is successful. I want Chad Gerlach back, not for the sappy storyline, but simply because he’s a great cyclist that forced the P/1/2’s of the NCNCA–and especially forced me–to rise to a higher level of racing.