By Laura Weislo
American Chad Gerlach is back in the pro peloton after a five and a half year absence, and his return is giving a new meaning to the term 'clean cycling'. While cycling and drugs have unfortunately become synonymous, Gerlach's poison wasn't EPO, steroids or any other performance enhancing drug, it was crack and booze. His amazing story is told in detail in our latest feature.
A pro from 1995 until he succumbed to addiction in 2003, Gerlach spent most of the past six years drinking, using drugs and living on the streets in Sacramento, California. But with the help of his friends and family and a television show called "Intervention", he got into rehab and cleaned up his life.
His former teammate, Roberto Gaggioli, a director for the Amore e Vita team, was eager to help the 35-year-old get back on the bike after seeing him o the program. The team's owner, Ivano Fanini and his manager, son Cristian, were more than willing to give Gerlach a chance.
The Fanini family did the same for Valentino Fois, a former teammate of Marco Pantani who had also suffered from addiction problems. Sadly, Fois died in March of last year before he could complete his return to form.
Cyclingnews spoke to Gerlach, who just participated in his first two professional races in six years, the Giro della Provincia di Grosseto and Giro di Sardegna. He enjoyed the experience of racing alongside the world champion, Alessandro Ballan.
"I was getting photos taken with Ballan – and I was joking with the guys that I'm a tourist. The guys don't know what to make of me. They all know who I am. The Italian public is sort of in awe of my story – that I was on the street and now I'm racing with these guys. Nobody yells at me in the pack, they just kind of let me ride around. Like, 'be careful, we don't want him to relapse'," Gerlach laughed.
Jokes aside, cycling has proven to be a dangerous place for people with fragile mental states. Just look at Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez, Graeme Obree, Frank Vandenbroucke. But Gerlach said he felt happy with his new team and confident in his rehabilitation.
"Cycling is not a good place for someone who doesn't have a strong mind, or someone who still feels the pull of drugs and alcohol. I think for me right now, I kind of got past the mental obsession to drink and use – it's gone away."
He knows that despite all the attempts to clean up the sport, performance enhancing drugs are still a "major problem", but at Amore e Vita-McDonald's, the message to live a clean life – sporting or otherwise – has gotten through. "I just try not to think about what's going on outside our team. Our message is obviously anti-drugs, and my case was good for that."
Ironically, Gerlach said he knew a lot of people were doing EPO back in the late '90s, and he could have easily gotten access to the drug, but he was afraid to even try it.
"Go figure, I was scared to take performance enhancing drugs. It's so funny to say this, but I was afraid of what it would do to my heart, my cardiovascular system, but then I'd get jacked up on crack. It doesn't make much sense. I think it has to do with my conscious – I wanted to be fair."
Sure, he might have dabbled in using some ephedra back in the day, but Gerlach sees a big difference between using a stimulant and blood transfusions and EPO. "Every cyclist takes a stimulant once in a while, that's like normal. To abuse that or to take something like a blood transfusion – that's just nutty.
"People who use drugs to get better at sports are idiots."
After a short rest following the Italian stage races, Gerlach is scheduled to resume racing in Northern France later this month.
Read the full interview.