Danny Chew has long tackled steep hills, but the path to riding long distance on a handcycle may be his toughest challenge yet.
Still, about a year after an accident left him paralyzed from the chest down, he’s back to lead the legendary Dirty Dozen uphill bike race he founded three decades ago.
Chew, 55, of Squirrel Hill, returns as director of the November 25th event and plans to cheer on riders in his handcycle bike atop Canton Avenue in Beechview, touted as one of the steepest streets in the world, with a 37 percent grade.
He’ll be transported to key spots around the race throughout the day.
“Where I run into trouble is, if I compare myself to the way I was before the accident,” he says. “But if I compare myself to the day after the accident, I’ve come very far.”
Chew was riding near Lodi, Ohio on September 4, 2016, when he became dizzy and crashed into a drainage ditch. He suffered a broken neck, spending months in rehabilitation, and then lived with a friend in Ohio while his home was adapted to accommodate his new needs.
He returned in July to the family home where he lives with his mother, Sara. In September, Chew kicked off registration for the 2017 race.
The 50-mile Dirty Dozen requires riders to traverse 13 (so a baker’s dozen) hills that showcase Pittsburgh’s winding streets, city neighborhoods and nearby towns. Riders will push through steep streets in Aspinwall, O’Hara, Shaler, Millvale, Fineview and portions of the North Side, among others.
Dirty Dozen hills average about a 25 percent grade, Chew said.
“Safety will be our number one priority,” he said. “People need to challenge themselves to do the best they can, but be safe.”
Safety is especially a concern because he expects 200 to 500 cyclists, a number he said he could not have imagined when he started the race in 1983 with his brother, Tom, and friend Bob Gottlieb.
There were just five cyclists, including them.
Now, racers from all over the country register, and Chew has up to 40 volunteers and multiple sponsors. He only missed the race last year because he was undergoing rehabilitation.
He watched it via live feed. “It’s only seven hours, but to me, it seemed like 24 hours,” he said.
“The joke I used to tell people is that I’ve been married to many bicycles but never a woman,” Chew said. “So when I lost my ‘wives,’ it was devastating.”
Then he considered: “You tell yourself there are people in the same situation as you, and there’s always someone who’s worse off and better off than you … I want to be able to inspire people through what I do.”
So in February, he began training on a handcycle.
The training was arduous. His breathing is 50 percent of what it was. He cannot sweat as well as he did prior the accident, therefore he must take care not to become overheated. He’s pushing his body weight with his arms.
Today he lifts free weights at home for arm strength and trains two to three times per week on a Top End Force G handcycle, pushing through on trails in Western Pennsylvania and in Ohio.
His longest ride since the accident was 34 miles in about five hours at the Western Reserve Greenway Trail, a 44-mile rail trail through Ashtabula and Trumbull counties in Ohio. He aims to make it to 50 miles at a time by the end of the year.
Chew’s love of cycling grew from long tours his family took together for several years — sometimes 100 miles at a time.
He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in math, but, he says, all he ever wanted to do was ride. He set a goal to ride 1,000,000 miles. So far, he’s up to about 784,000, tallied neatly in a riding journal he’s kept for the past several years.
Chew’s working to reach the 1,000,000 miles, and he’s buoyed by the handwritten letters, emails and phone calls he’s received from strangers, many of whom are now friends. One woman read about his story and she said it allowed her to have the first good day in a long time, after losing a loved one.
“That was very powerful for me, very inspiring,” Chew said.
The 2017 Dirty Dozen is set for November 25 with a start at Bud Harris Cycling Park, 1401 Washington Blvd. Registration is $35 to $40, but goes up after November 20.