American Chad Gerlach's comeback tale from a life of drug addiction and hard times on the streets to a clean life in professional cycling was one of the sport's most inspirational stories of the year. But after a season cut short by relapses, Gerlach is ready to set aside his career as a pro cyclist and put his focus where he says it belongs: on staying sober.
Gerlach, 36, was a top domestic rider in the late '90s but seven years ago descended into drug addiction and spent time living on the streets of Sacramento, California. He was the focus of a television show called "Intervention" last year in which his family convinced him to enter a rehab program.
Just months after getting clean, Gerlach picked up his cycling career with the Italian team Amore e Vita at the urging of his friend and team director Roberto Gaggioli.
Yet even with successes in the peloton this year, where he won five races and the mountains classification at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, Gerlach told Cyclingnews that his experiment in juggling recovery with a cycling career is over.
"I've been relapsing a lot lately, and was really stressed out about the idea of another year - going over to Europe. I actually signed the contract and sent it back, but was dreading it."
Amore e Vita team manager Cristian Fanini said he understood, according to Gerlach. "It's like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. My continued sobriety would be the biggest win of my life. I'm very happy and excited with my decision."
Fanini grew concerned when he lost touch with Gerlach mid-way through the season, but was unaware that he had relapsed into drinking and using drugs.
Where did it all go wrong? Gerlach said he had been too stubborn to get the help he needed - talking to sponsors, going to meetings - and was embarrassed about backsliding.
"I guess I got caught up in all the attention about my recovery - I had so many stories written about me, way more than when I was a pro before. But I spent too much time alone, inside my own head. I've been alone too much - five hours of training up in the mountains by myself isn't that different from sitting in an alley doing crack.
"I just decided I can't do it anymore. I'm happy with everything that happened [with the team], and they helped to show me I can be a cyclist again.
"Staying sober is the most important thing to me, and running off to Italy isn't going to help me do that. I don't want to lose my family - my girl just had a baby this summer, and she wouldn't talk to me," he said on day three of his new-found sobriety.
But just because he's not going to stay with Amore e Vita doesn't mean Gerlach is giving up the bike entirely.
"I definitely want to stay involved in cycling, to enjoy it as a hobby. I'll probably jump into some crits, do the pro race and maybe the masters, but just not as a professional."
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