He raced like the wind – then came 5 years on the streets
To the regulars on the Saturday morning River Ride, Chad Gerlach must have seemed like an apparition as he rode away from the pack, leaving 50 of Sacramento's best cyclists gasping for air.
At 35, he was powerful and beautiful and seemingly supernatural, impossibly different from the man who had been eking out a life on the streets of Sacramento, homeless and addicted to drugs.
This was the Chad Gerlach who had been a local cycling legend, who had tussled at 17 with a young and brash Lance Armstrong when the two were pegged as future stars of the sport, who once was supposed to be great the way Armstrong became great.
Now Armstrong, 37, has come out of retirement and will race this Saturday in Sacramento, the starting point for the nine-day Amgen Tour of California.
And Gerlach? His improbable return finds him in Italy, signed to a pro team and racing against some of the sport's toughest competition before returning to the United States in late April for a full season of stateside pro racing.
Few who witnessed Gerlach at his worst imagined this. Even Gerlach himself proceeds cautiously into his sobriety. "I have to still remember I'm an addict," he said.
During his years on the streets, his mother, Michelle Johnson, would repeatedly plead with him to get help, only to return to her Fair Oaks home in tears. His father, Peter Gerlach, says he dreaded that inevitable phone call from a coroner, telling him his son's life had ended the way many expected it would.
Those who have seen him recently on the River Ride, the ones who gave chase to this ghost on a bike after he had turned the corner of his recovery, are already believers in a reborn Chad Gerlach. But no one can explain it.
"Good grief, this guy was in the depths of depravity and panhandling and abusing his body, and he's come back in such a short period of time," said Max Mack, an amateur racer. "That guy has talent like you wouldn't believe. It's a shock. It's amazing."
Stellar talent, bad-boy rep
Part of the Gerlach legend went beyond his natural talent and scrapes with authority. In his racing heyday, it was about how much physical punishment and suffering he could endure in a race.
"He was given a set of tools that most of us don't understand," said longtime Sacramento racer and River Ride stalwart Rich Maile. "I've seen that guy turn himself absolutely inside out racing and go places most of us absolutely cannot imagine."
Gerlach was a hyper, brilliant boy who grew up to be a wunderkind on a bike, winning races but developing a bad-boy reputation. Never mind that he couldn't be coached, he couldn't be tamed.
His peculiar intellect amused and baffled those around him. He could remember minuscule details from races and the names of everyone he'd ever raced against, yet he couldn't sit still in school.
Maile remembers when he worked at City Bicycle Works in midtown years ago, Gerlach would walk into the shop, pick up a cycling magazine, read every word on every page, put it down and walk out.
As the years passed, Armstrong claimed seven Tour de France victories and became a worldwide inspiration after surviving cancer. Gerlach won races, lit up cigarettes to celebrate, experimented with drugs, chased women and was booted off teams.
He was kicked off the mighty U.S. Postal Service squad in 1996, the year Armstrong learned he had cancer. A recovered Armstrong joined the postal service squad two years later and went on to win his first Tour de France in 1999.
"A lot of racers weren't in my corner, probably because of my attitude," Gerlach said. "It wasn't as much cockiness as it was intensity and how I wanted things with my racing."
He also wanted it his way when he wasn't racing.
On one team, he slept with the female team manager. "A lot of people had problems with that," he said, shrugging.
"He couldn't resist anything," said his father, a highly regarded soccer referee. "He had that free-spirit personality and did whatever he wanted to do," Peter Gerlach said.