Sacramento, California has seen both the dramatic return of Lance Armstrong and local racer Chad Gerlach to the pro peloton in 2009, but while Armstrong stood on the podium at the Nevada City Classic, Tour de France and Leadville 100, Gerlach's 'summer vacation' has turned tragic, as the 36-year-old has relapsed into living on the streets to panhandle for drinking money.
Gerlach, racing for the Amore & Vita cycling team, raced alongside 2008 world road champion Alessandro Ballan in Italy, captured the King of the Mountains climber's jersey at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota, won the Tour de Nez, then finished fifth behind Armstrong at the Nevada City Classic in June.
Gerlach's triumphant return to professional racing was well documented when he became the subject of several episodes of the reality TV show "Intervention" on the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) channel due to his alcohol and crack cocaine abuse while living on the streets of Sacramento, his hometown. Gerlach is often recognised from the show while panhandling.
According to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee, this past spring and summer Gerlach trained five hours a day, returning to his old dominant ways on the bike, attracting worldwide media interest. Gerlach retired from racing in 2003 after his team folded and losing interest in the grind of pro racing.
Records show Sacramento police picked him up on September 25 for suspected public drunkenness. His father, Peter Gerlach, says he got his son into drug rehabilitation about three weeks ago, but Chad didn't stick it out.
"I've had a wonderful summer vacation," he said while panhandling on a recent Saturday night outside a Safeway grocery store 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 fourth-place finish behind Rock Racing's Rahsaan Bahati at the Fourth of July Criterium in Davis, California.
After that race, according to the Sacramento Bee, Gerlach shrugged off his showing and said, "I was feeling a little flat today."
Gerlach's 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 colour her eyes are, and what colour her hair is."
Speaking by telephone from Italy, Cristian Fanini, owner and manager of the Amore & Vita cycling team told the Sacramento Bee, "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."
Despite Gerlach's radio silence to friends and family, race sponsors 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."