Pop Star: Danny Chew

By: Abby Mendelson

November 22, 2006

We’re standing near the 31st Street Bridge, looking up – straight up – the Rialto, Troy Hill’s vertical cliff of a street once used for driving hogs to the Herr’s Island slaughterhouses. Yes, says Danny Chew, he’s going to ride up this street, and 12 more, as part of the Dirty Dozen, his annual bike-a-thon showcasing Pittsburgh’s famed hills. Held every Thanksgiving Saturday, November 25 this year, Chew and 50 hearty souls will trek 50 miles around the city – and up Pittsburgh’s 13 steepest streets. “It’s not for the novice,” Chew allows. “But anyone is welcome to watch – and cheer.”

Although serious seems far too mild for Danny Chew, a sinewy man with outsized glasses and a loud, declarative voice, the Dirty Dozen is his light-hearted attempt to buckle your knees and blow out your back. Invented in ’83, he makes days drinks and snacks available along the trail, along with spare parts and fresh tires. Assembling at 10 AM at the Washington Boulevard track, the Tour de Burgh hits Aspinwall’s Center Avene/Guyasuta Road, Sharpsburg’s Ravine Street, the North Side’s Suffolk/Hazelton/Burgess Streets, Mount Washington’s infamous Sycamore Street (aka The Burma Road), and nine more. “Hazelton’s the hardest,” Chew admits. “It stays steepest the longest.”

Still, the Dirty Dozen is just a warm-up, for Chew’s life-goal is to peddle his Softride one million miles. That’s 1,000,000. As in a thousand thousands.

“I’m already at 600,000,” the Squirrel Hill native says. Now 44, he figures to break one hundred cubed when he’s in his 70s.

A leg up has been RAAM – the Race Across America. Taking different routes – Oceanside, California to Atlantic City, New Jersey; Portland, Oregon to Pensicola, Florida -- RAAM varies its 3,000-mile west-east route every year. A two-time national winner, in 1996 and ’99, Chew’s best time was a breath-taking eight days, seven hours, 14 minutes. Sleeping no more than three hours a night, he spent a literal week in the saddle. “You have to be a little crazy,” Chew shrugs.

He’s logged other endurance rides, too, such as a Pittsburgh-Savannah run in four days flat. His longest day’s journey into night: an 800-mile ride to an Iowa race, then 500 miles in 24 hours to cop the crown.

Snow is a fear, as are careless drivers, as are woodsy creatures. A collision with a car cost him 18 stitches; a bounding deer bounced a barely conscious Chew into the hospital. Tide, time, and tendonitis take their toll, as do equipment failures. (He’s been through 15 bicycles in 30-odd years.)

When he can’t ride, Chew cross-trains, cross-country skiing and stair-climbing Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning. His record: 86 trips to the top in 12 hours, a vertical loft of 38,000 feet, or 9,000 higher than Everest. “Fitness,” he says, “is something that money can't buy. It has to be acquired through sweat.

“Pittsburgh’s good for biking,” Chew adds. “Riding the hills is great training. But brake shoes wear out pretty fast. And tires. I go through 10 or 15 tires every year.”

Award-winning writer Abby Mendelson is the author of numerous books, including The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History and Pittsburgh: A Place in Time. Ghost Dancer, a collection of short stories, is forthcoming at bn.com. His last Pop City piece was on was on Pop Star Gerald Morosco.

Dan Chew with Softride bicycle

Dan Chew

Dan Chew on Softride