Brian Hamilton: Former NC champ climbing back to recovery
Standing atop the podium smack dab in the middle of Broad Street, Chad Gerlach had to feel like he was on top of the world after winning the 1996 Nevada City Classic Bike Race as member of the U.S. Postal team.
But not even 10 years later, after his cycling career had come an abrupt end, our former champion found himself on the streets of Sacramento, homeless and strung out on crack cocaine, simply hoping to wake up the next morning.
How on Earth could this happen?
“I wasn’t prepared for life after racing,” Gerlach said. “My career kind of ended unexpectedly. I didn’t think 2002 would be my last year.
“I was 30 years old and looking forward to another five years of racing.”
Instead, he spent the last four years panhandling to get his fix and turning away family members who tried to get him off the streets.
At least that was the case, until the intervention.
Duane Strawser, who owns the Tour of Nevada City Bike Shop, tipped me off to Gerlach’s story earlier this summer. He told me that a reality TV program was going to feature the dramatic fall of the former cycling champ to share yet another tragic tale of drug addiction.
As I was flying back from vacation, flipping through the on-board satellite TV, I by chance caught not only an episode of A&E’s “Intervention,” but the actual one that shared Gerlach’s story.
As far as professional cyclists go, he was somewhat of a late-comer to the sport, picking it up at the age of 15 after his father, Peter, took him to a race.
The son of a divorced couple who had been diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, he found himself in trouble early on in life. Two years after his parents went their separate ways, Chad moved in with his dad, who says he didn’t provide the guidance his son needed at the time.
“He was pretty much a latch-key kid in the sixth and seventh grade,” Peter said. “I was busy working for SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) and he had the run of the town, whatever he wanted to do.
“He just had too much energy and not enough direction.”
At one point, Chad was even actually charged with felony arson and was sent to juvenile hall.
“I just thought he needed to channel that energy into a positive direction, in a positive environment,” Peter said.
Eventually, father and son found that outlet.
“One day we were riding bikes in old town Fair Oaks,” Peter said. “It must have been 1986 or ’87. There was a criterium (cycling race) going on, and the 7-11 junior team was there.
“Chad’s eyes went from being the size of a nickel to a half dollar. It was really something to see that in him.”
He had found his passion. It wasn’t long after that Chad was not only entering junior cycling events, but winning them – including Nevada City.
“In a half-year’s time, he went from not knowing how to start a race to winning races,” Peter said. “After that, he was always just a great cyclist.”
His fast ascent through the junior ranks was impressive enough that Peter jumped on board when Chad said he wanted to put college on the back burner in order to pursue a pro career.
It looked like a smart move when some of the top teams started offering him rides, including Montgomery Bell, which was a precursor to the U.S. Postal squad.
Eventually, he earned the spot on what would later become the most-celebrated cycling team in the American history, led by seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
But at some point, Peter said, Chad and Armstrong “got into a beef” at the Olympic Training Center. After that, Chad was relegated to riding solo at most American events, while the team competed in Europe.
That didn’t stop him from collecting some of the biggest wins of his career, including a stage of the 1996 Tour of China, a stage of the Tour of Solidarity in Poland and two stages of the 1998 Tour De Langkawi in Malaysia.
And, oh yeah, his moment in the setting sun of a Father’s Day in downtown Nevada City.
“It was awesome,” Chad said by phone last week. “For me, it completed the circle, because I’d won it as junior and then I’d won it as a senior.”
It wouldn’t be fair to say his descent started after that championship ride in ’96, after all he continued to be in the mix at Nevada City several times, “but I never could win it again,” he said.
He continued to crank out victories across the country, riding for the likes of Navigators, Oilme, Elite 2/3 and Sierra Nevada-Cannondale.
It looked as though there was still plenty of life in those legs, as he proclaimed to the Medford, (Ore.) Mail Tribune after winning the Rogue Valley Mayor’s Cup in 2001 “My strongest years are ahead of me.”
But his career hit the brakes hard in 2002.
“I think I just got real depressed following that year,” he said, pointing out that he had lost a teammate, 23-year-old Ryan Smith of Sacramento, who had been stabbed to death. “I didn’t really hit me until the season was over and then I kind of lost it, went out and tried to have a lot of fun.”
His form of “fun” soon took control of his life, becoming more important than even having a roof over his head.
And that was the life of a former Nevada City champion until earlier this year, when family members were so desperate to save him from himself that they turned to a reality TV show.
Throughout the episode, it was hard to feel sorry for him. He believed he was being filmed as part of documentary on addiction and he seem only happy to play the leading role. He seemed to enjoy the opportunity to take center stage, oddly proud of his affliction while coming off as a smart-alec brat to his parents pleading for him to get help.
Even when he was shocked to discover he was part of an intervention, Chad chose his drugs over a room of family and friends, who promised it would be their final plea to his sanity.
He simply walked out.
My gut wrenched, as it seemed the show was over.
Fortunately, it was just a cliff-hanging commercial break.
The next day, though, he accepted the offer and headed to treatment. That was February and he’s spent the past few months focused on getting back to “the old Chad.”
“I’m doing fine,” he said, letting me know that he’s enrolled for classes at Sierra College this fall and is spending a lot of time back on his bike. “I’ve just been riding and spending a lot of time with my girlfriend.”
He said he was actually in attendance at this year’s Nevada City Classic and now hopes to be riding in the 49th annual race next summer.
“Just for the fun of it,” he said. “I saw all of these old guys still racing. I mean Eric Wohlberg is 42 and he got fourth at Nevada City? He also won a stage at (Reno-Tahoe’s) Tour de Nez. Next year, I’m going to be 36. So why not?”
But whether he’s able to dominate the 1.1-mile up-and-down of Nevada City ever again, really isn’t the question here. His biggest challenge, as he well knows, is staying on the road to recovery.
He said he hasn’t forgotten where his family found him back in February.
“My foxhole prayers were answered,” he said. “You know, it’s 2:30 in the morning and you’re running out of crack cocaine and all you hope is that you don’t die before you wake up.
“I’m blessed. A lot of people never get that opportunity. I prayed for that a long time.”
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. His column appears Saturdays. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4240.
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