David Clinger knows the sport of cycling from the highest of the highs to the lowest depths it brings.
He knows those valleys and peaks depend as much on personal choices as they do on talent.
It’s why, when asked if he’d heard about Chad Gerlach’s relapse into addiction, Clinger showed as much disappointment as sympathy.
“I kind of know what he’s been through,” said Clinger, himself a recovering drug addict now living in Utah where he’s trying to stay clean and renew his cycling career. “You have to decide what you want. You can decide to be clean and race, or not. If he decides he doesn’t want that, he can chose to live on the streets — whatever.”
Clinger, is a former U.S. Postal, Festina and Rock Racing cyclist who found himself in headlines as much as a result of his facial tattoos and substance abuse problems as his cycling accomplishments. He said he feels sad for Gerlach but that he’s not completely surprised to see the return to self-destructive behavior.
“You chose to be with the groups of people you associate with,” Clinger said. “He doesn’t have to do that. He doesn’t have to beg like that. He can work. He doesn’t have to do that, but that’s the choice he made. It’s the life he wants to live.”
Clinger could have made similar choices.
“I’ve learned my lesson,” Clinger said. “That’s not something I want anymore. Whatever I do, I just gotta stay off the drugs.”
And with the exception of one time — a particularly stressful day nearly eight months ago — Clinger said he’s been clean and sober for 13 months.
He also had a solid season on the bike.
After landing in Utah where he stayed at a group home and underwent counseling and therapy, Clinger hooked up with the local Cole Sports cycling team and had a full season racing. He placed highly in the state criterium and time trial championships and, with the help of a new sponsor, raced at the U.S. Elite Road championships where he placed second in the road race and 20th in the time trial the next day.
He followed that up with a respectable showing in the Tour of Utah and had a fifth-place finish in the first stage but couldn’t quite keep up on the rugged mountain top finishes in subsequent stages.
The distinctive tattoos across his face are being removed — the process is a slow one and will take at least another year — and he said he’s trying to establish some positive consistency in his life.
Last week, at the request of a friend from the church he attends, he spoke in front of a group of teenagers at a juvenile detention facility in the Salt Lake area.
“It was good,” he said. “I talked to them about making choices and how they can overcome some of the bad things that have happened in their lives.”
While fielding plenty of questions about the tattoos, he also tried to show them they need not be limited by past mistakes.
“If they stay focused,” Clinger said, “they can get out and do whatever they want to do.”
Life, in many ways, is still a struggle for Clinger, though.
While he is now living with friends from church and not at the group home, he has been unsuccessful in finding steady work — “I don’t fit the image they want” — and is on food stamps and other public assistance. He lives in an apartment complex near a large shopping center and uses his custom-painted Giant bicycle to pedal from place to place.
But he is staying in shape and hopes to have an even more successful racing season in 2010.
“I’m slowly trying to get things lined up for next year,” he said. “I’ve talked to a few teams, but nothing concrete. Not really sure where I’ll be riding … I’m trying to keep my options open.”
Most importantly, the 31-year-old wants to stay clean and keep his dream of being a professional cyclist alive.
Jared Eborn is a sports writer for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.