MAY 10, 2007
For Danny Chew, it's all about the bike
Danny Chew is snarling, snorting and barking at me, his face thrust forward so it's only six inches from my own. White flecks gather in the corners of his mouth. He's pushed his bristling brown hair back on his head, and his eyes gleam behind his glasses, the bifocal lenses coming down almost as far as his gap-toothed grin.
Just when I start to think maybe I should make a break for it, he dissolves into laughter.
This is, he tells me, one of his best party tricks: turning into a werewolf. He's already shown me some others. He's performed renditions of his favorite tunes: "How 'bout a band called The Re-Flex? 'The POL-i-TICKS of DAN-cing, doo doo doo!' The Hooters! 'Doo! Doo! DOOT! We were liars in love and we DANCED, doo doo DOOT!'" He's also guessed my height, weight and shoe size -- all accurately.
Post-transformation, Chew reclines in gray sweatpants, leather moccasins and a "Race Across America" T-shirt. He is sitting in the living room of the Squirrel Hill house he still shares with his mother, the house he has called home for all of his 44 years. Around him are trophies from years of bike racing -- competitions local and national. Two plaques shaped like the United States bear his name and winning times for the Race Across America, a grueling, ultra-endurance trek across the U.S.
Unlike, say, Lance Armstrong, Chew doesn't bike with a team. He is, on the road and off it, usually alone. And that road can be dangerous: Behind the basement stairs is The Bicycle Graveyard, where mangled bikes linger until they're stripped for parts. There's one from his biggest wreck, a deer that came out of nowhere. "BAM! I didn't even see the deer," Chew recalls. "I woke up in the hospital 10 hours later. A week later I was back on a new bike."
Chew is best known for winning the Race Across America in 1996 and 1999. Sleeping only a couple of hours a night, Chew finished the 3,000-mile trek in less than 8 days and 8 hours. He's finished in the top tier of the race a half-dozen other times. And although sponsorship dollars have dried up as younger, flashier racers have started winning, Chew has a bigger goal in mind.
To accomplish it, he has to keep himself from doing the very thing he treats as a party trick. Danny Chew can transform himself in an instant ... and yet those who know him say he hasn't changed in decades. And he can't change now, not if he wants to reach his goal.
To succeed, Chew has to keep himself from growing up, and from settling down. Because by his calculations -- and, next to biking, making calculations might be his favorite thing to do -- he'll be an old man, in his 70s or 80s when he does it ... when he rides his millionth mile.
"It was like I created a monster," says Danny's 50-year-old sister, Carol Chew Perezluha, laughing over the phone from her home in Florida. "Danny credits me with being the one to get him into cycling." When she and a neighborhood girlfriend were 15, the cute boys they saw on bikes led them to take up the hobby. Baby brother Danny, then 9, and middle brother Tom, 12, caught the bug.
Biking became a total family affair. If Carol, speedy but climbing-challenged, had a tough time getting up a hill, her brothers would ride on either side of her and push her up.
All three Chew kids were serious bikers for a time. Carol qualified for state-level competitions, and Tom made the Olympic team in 1980, during the U.S. boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow. But it was Danny who has traveled the farthest of all.
Danny was always an odd duck, his sister recalls, and he preferred the bike to almost any kind of kid-mischief. "He always has a strong group of cycling friends," Carol says. "They admired him for his cycling, so they overlooked his social quirks." Those same cute boys who got her into biking in the first place were like older brothers to Danny, she says. Their father Hal built a trailer that could haul 13 neighborhood kids and their bikes to long rides in Ohio or Wisconsin.
Chew himself remembers that he was "kind of like the outsider. I just had a couple really close friends, buddies I'd ride with after school. I was really shy."
But on a bike, he could outrace all that awkwardness. "Even when he was 14 years old, Danny loved to ride," says Oscar Swan, who has known Chew for more than 30 years (and who has written a book about Pittsburgh-area bike trips). "There was no one else in Pittsburgh who was close to him at that age."
And shortly after he started riding, Chew began tracking the distance he'd gone. He loved math, maps and biking, so keeping track of the intersection of the three was a natural habit. He logged his miles obsessively, first by meticulously measuring map scales, and later adopting increasingly sophisticated odometers and bike computers.
And by his early 20s, he figured that he could reach a million miles in his lifetime. Chew has since dubbed himself "The Million Mile Man," a title he's been chasing ever since.
Races count, whether he wins or loses. Commuting counts, whether Chew is headed for a bike shop across town or to visit friends in Columbus. Miles logged on stationary bikes do not count, and are held in contempt: "The difference between a stationary bike and being out on the road is huge!" Chew says, in his distinctively stentorian, all-exclamation-points way of speaking. On a stationary bike, he declaims, you don't have to pull your body weight up notorious Western Pennsylvania hills or be buffeted by the wind.
And on every mile he rides, Chew says, "It's as if I have this big bully over my head."
He characterizes himself, only half-jokingly, as an addict. "When I can't ride, I'm depressed, it bothers me. After about 100 miles, I feel a lot better. It can be euphoric."
Chew documents each ride in a meticulously kept diary. The red leatherette hardbound volumes -- each with the year inlaid in gold print on the cover -- sit in order in a desk drawer in Chew's bedroom. Each diary is packed with blocked printing that looks like the work of a fourth-grader, with letters exactly as tall as the space between the lines. ("I press so hard I have to have two sheets underneath," he says.) The daily entries are mostly in blue, though the first time Chew rides with someone new, their names are entered in red. (I'll get an entry tonight, Chew says, but only in blue because we didn't ride.) And each day's entry details weather conditions, companions, bike mishaps, routes taken and miles. Always miles.
So far, Chew has racked up 610,000 of them.
He doesn't race much anymore, and doesn't ride as fast as he used to. But then he's not chasing any records, either: At least one other person, a New Jersey cyclist named Freddie Hoffman, has already reached the million-mile mark ... and he's still going. "At this rate, he'll get to 2 million," Danny says of Hoffman matter-of-factly, without a spark of competitive fire.
The million-mile point is just a way to measure the immeasurable: Chew's desire to ride. And with no commitments on his time, he just spends most days on the bike. The number "is just a way to describe how far you went."
Still, his worst fear is getting somehow disabled, because then he'd have to stop riding. Then he'd never achieve his arbitrary goal. But even if -- when -- he does makes it, he says, he'll just keep riding. No reason to stop.
And yet in some ways, despite all that motion, Danny has barely budged. All three Chew kids have degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. But Danny "never followed through" after graduating with his, says his sister Carol. "That's when we realized" her brother's life would take a different path.
Middle brother Tom Chew makes a living as an engineer in Hong Kong. He "kept up the riding, but his family became more important. My family was more important," says Carol, who teaches college math while raising two kids.
As for Danny, "In some ways, Danny seems to be childlike," Carol says. "I think it may be because he spent so much time on the bike. There's something missing there."
Acknowledges Chew, "I've been called the Forrest Gump of bicycling."
Chew still lives in the bedroom he slept in as a boy. And the way he lives -- without a job, car, cell phone or girlfriend -- hasn't changed much since then either.
His room is a sort of time capsule. A low-slung, neatly made twin bed is dressed in a leopard-print comforter with elephant-print sheets peeking out. Tacked to a corkboard by the desk is a certificate from the Dean's List of 1986-87 at Pitt and a few autographed photos -- headshots of news anchors and muscle-bound female bodybuilders, who he says he admires for their dedication to a grueling physical pursuit.
Chew hasn't lost an adolescent awkwardness, either.
I'm perusing a diary entry from earlier in the year with details of fixing a flat on a sunny Western Pennsylvania roadside and Chew is switching the tapes he's copied off the radio, going from Three Doors Down's "Kryptonite" to America's "Horse with No Name." Suddenly, he thrusts a mostly-empty screw-top tube into my hands. It is Rite-Aid brand hemorrhoid cream. I drop it immediately.
"Oh, sometimes I get really bad hemorrhoids and I have to use this cream on them," he says by way of explanation.
By his own admission, Chew lacks almost any kind of conversational filter, and has little sense of decorum. He has a name for the condition -- "RTP," for "random thought process."
Thoughts and ideas just bubble over. While explaining the configuration of his bike's handlebars, he'll opine on whether women should shave their armpits or leave them lush (either way is fine with him). After explaining his elegant thoughts on why he is an atheist, he asks if I have a sister ... and what size shoes she wears.
Chew's interest in women's feet is hard to ignore, though there doesn't seem to be any leering intent behind such questions. And even friends admit Chew can take some getting used to.
"Sometimes I think some of the far-out and left-field and eccentric things that he does, he has a plan," says Don Erdeljac, who has known Chew for years. "It's not so much that he's far out or weird. He has a plan. He's looking for an observation, maybe like he's trying to screen people. The foot thing might not be about a genuine interest in feet, but how you react to what he says."
Today, as when he was growing up, Chew's friendships are based almost entirely on biking. Angelo Cialone, owner of Biketek in Squirrel Hill, has known Chew since they were teen-agers racing in the zoo parking lot. "He has the same kind of personality," Cialone says. "He talks forever. Nonstop, rar rar rar rar rar! He gets real personal as he rides."
"He's fun to ride with," says Stephen "Steevo" Cummings. Cummings and Chew met in 2002 while riding the "Dirty Dozen," an annual race Chew and his brother Tom concocted in 1983 to showcase Pittsburgh's hills. Whoever earns the most points climbing the 13 verticals gets serious bragging rights. Cummings has won the last three, but is still in awe of Chew and his encyclopedic knowledge of the roads: "He knows every single road within a 90-mile radius of Pittsburgh. He'll ride to Columbus from memory." And when you venture on to a new road with him, Cummings says, Chew will crow "NEW ROAD!" as you ride.
"In a lot of ways, [Danny] is like a 16-year-old," says his sister Carol. She has a 15-year-old son, Steven, who gets along famously with his uncle. "And I can see why they can relate to each other," she says.
Steven, too, was a restless kid with some discipline problems until he found an outlet in sports. He's started keeping diaries of his athletic pursuits, just like Uncle Danny. During a visit this Christmastime, Steven beat Danny's personal speed record for hauling up the 36 flights of stairs in the Cathedral of Learning -- Danny's only other athletic pursuit besides biking. Shortly after that visit, though, his uncle called to let Steven know he'd smashed Steven's record.
But the truth is, Carol worries about her brother. Some people who've known Danny his entire life have suggested he may have a condition like Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism often characterized by social awkwardness and an intelligence extremely focused on a particular topic. While Danny has never been diagnosed with any condition, Carol says, "I think it's possible."
In any case, she says, "How is he going to support himself if Mom were to pass away, too? We sometimes worry that he could become a homeless person when he's older. He doesn't have enough work to get Social Security. ... [He] doesn't seem to have the drive to meet a wife or have kids. This million-mile thing ... I don't think he's ever going to find a wife. He's married to the bike."
Chew says the first criterion for a significant other is that she be a distance cyclist. He's gone online to find ladies, but the pool of potential dates is tiny and far-flung.
A woman in Cincinnati once sent him some bike tires after they met on the Internet. But Cincy is a long bike ride from Pittsburgh, even for Danny. "I sometimes think of my bike as my significant other," he says. "It's never going to say 'we need to talk.'"
Erdeljac says he's not sure Danny actually does want a partner. "I don't know that Danny truly wants to find someone and get married. If he did, it would truly alter his goals in life."
Even some committed cyclists are bemused by the depth of Chew's obsession. Jerry Kraynick, proprietor of Kraynick's Bicycle Shop in Garfield, calls him "Peter Pan."
"I like Danny," says Kraynick, "but if you have a conversation with him, he can pretty much only talk about riding. I get on him every time I see him to tell him there's more to life than biking. I don't think I get through." Bike riding, Kraynick says, "should enhance your life, not be your life."
Cummings agrees, to a point. "It's like being perpetually 22 -- no wife, no kids. His friends have outgrown him." At 26, and living with a girlfriend, Cummings says "I'm feeling the pressure to do something or I'm gonna be Danny -- but hey, that might be fun!"
Chew, he says, has a "really outside perspective on society. ... He believes most people are pretty miserable."
In fact, when I ask Chew about his biggest vice, he leans over, cups his hand around his mouth and stage-whispers, "Hating to work a 9-to-5 office job!" And if some people look at him and scoff, he looks at the world around him with a sort of pity. "Steel boxes -- people get comfortable in their steel boxes," he says. He means cars, of course. "My buddy jokes that he lives in his car. Sad, but it's very real.
"To be a successful cyclist, you have to be selfish," he adds. "I'd rather be a kid the rest of my life if it means I'm happy."
As Cummings admits, "Not everybody can live like him: Society would shut down." Still, he sees much to admire in Chew's single-minded determination. "He's pretty much a monk," he says. "In a given week he suffers more than the average go-to-work person does in a year." And he does it not for glory, but out of a kind of reverence: "If there was nobody to tell, he'd do it anyway."
Chew in fact, lives a life as separate, and as disciplined, as any monk. He, too, practices devotionals: In Chew's basement are the wooden weight machines his late father made, so that he can keep his legs pumping when the weather's too foul to bike. He engages in fasting -- although his fasts take place in the midst of lengthy bike trips. Denying himself food and water "teaches the body discipline," Chew says. It "lets me know that if I don't get a certain feed or a water bottle, I don't panic." His personal distance record without food or water is 182 miles ... though he cautions, "Don't try this one at home."
Such discipline allows him to overcome hardships few others could bear. "We were riding up Neville Road across from Neville Island when his crank arm snapped off," Cummings says. With one of the pedals now inoperable, Chew "rode home one-legged, fixed it and went back out."
In fact, though his bikes may have suffered over the years, Chew says he's never so much as broken a bone. "He seems to be very safe, and also very lucky," Swan says. "He's extremely confident. After all these miles of repetitive motion, you would have to become pretty smooth at what you do."
And Chew has taken, if not a vow of poverty, then at least a thrifty approach to expenses. Once when Chew and Cummings were on a long ride together, they stopped at a convenience store for drinks. Chew, Cummings said, priced everything in the store and couldn't pass up the half-gallon jug of tea for 99 cents, even though it was more than he could drink. Spending 79 cents on a manageable quart would have been uneconomical. So Chew chugged as much as he could, put the rest in his water bottle, and powered through a tea-induced stomachache later. But he did save those 20 cents.
Living frugally, he says, ensures that he can live off the money he makes as an embedded expert reporter on each year's Race Across America. And the numbers give him something to focus on, almost like prayers.
"Number crunching! I love it!" Chew exclaims. "You wonder what I think about out there on the bike? It's crunching numbers."
Chew holds degrees in mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh, and numbers and statistics grip him, consume him, keep him from going crazy on 14-hour solo rides. He doesn't even care what they quantify. "He follows sports, too, like the Steelers," says Cummings. "He doesn't like the game; he just likes the stats." Chew's recordkeeping, Cummings says, extends to friends and acquaintances. "He has like a spreadsheet of probably a billion people. He knows stuff about my riding that I don't even know."
He's also a fan of round, logical numbers. When Chew climbs the stairs of Pitt's Cathedral of Learning, it's not worth doing if he doesn't climb the 36 stories at least 12 times -- a vertical mile. Cummings says that to tease Chew, he'll come back from riding a century -- a 100-mile ride -- and tell him he rode 98 or 99 miles, infuriating him.
Now Chew is chasing his holy grail, the roundest number of all. The miles are getting harder now: Chew doesn't have the speed or endurance he did as a younger man. Even so, Chew passed mile 600,000 -- a nice, round number all by itself, on Sept. 10, 2006.
Chew is disdainful of religion: It exists, he says, only because people would lose their moral compass without some expectation of eternal punishment or reward. For Chew, though, biking is its own reward. "So much has changed about a bike, but it's still two wheels," he says with wonder. "If you define religion as that which you strongly believe in, then my religion is cycling."