By Stephen Cummings
Danny Chew is the type of person that people need to be warned about before they meet him. His eccentricities are sometimes overpowering, and can dwarf the rest of his personality. When off the bike, he is usually wearing sweatpants and a free t-shirt from some race, somewhere. He wears giant glasses similar to those of Mr. Magoo or DMC. Danny usually has a few days worth of a beard growing, and he is also a close talker.
On the bike though, he has quite an impressive cycling resume. He did his first double century at the age of 12, and has kept meticulous logs of his mileage since as he tries to achieve one million lifetime miles. He raced the first USPRO championships in 1985, and participated in legs of the defunct Tour de Trump. When he started slowing down, he changed his style to endurance races, concentrating on the Race Across America (RAAM) and solo 12 or 24 hour road races. He has completed RAAM eight times, winning twice. In 1996 he broke the transcontinental record for bicycles at a remarkable 8 Days, 7 Hours and 14 Minutes coast to coast, a bit longer than most people are comfortable driving the distance. It takes a special person to be able to do these types of events. In preparation for RAAM, Danny’s “Chewness” paid off. He did neck exercises for months, because fatigue has made it literally impossible for some RAAM racers to even hold up their own head. He deprived himself of sleep, and trained his body to know how to function on 3 or 4 hours sandwiched between 20 hours of saddle time. Danny once rode 180 miles, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, without any food or water just to say that he did.
People’s first question is usually, “What does he do for a living?” The answer, quite simply, is nothing. He lives in the house in which he grew up alongside his siblings. It is only himself and his mother living there now, and she is fully supportive of his lifestyle. He makes a few dollars here and there, and saves to the penny. Danny’s ability to not spend money can be downright mind blowing. In every aspect of his life, he is proud of how cheap he can be. He will leave for a 200-mile ride with nothing but a dollar or two worth of fig bars and apples pies from the discount grocery store. He knows every gas station with free water and each park that has a fountain within a hundred mile radius of his house. He runs bike chains until they have at least 15,000 miles on them, and can usually find used ones that are fine for him, along with cassettes that people with higher standards would consider spent. There is a story of Danny piecing together a chain from the links of new chains that people discard. Tires are ridden until they are truly, absolutely worn out with the tube poking through the casing. Danny’s mantra is “Keep the overhead low, and the mileage high.”
Danny has ridden at least 15,000 miles per year since 1980. A few of his higher mileage years were closer to 30,000. With such a long cycling career, he has seen many ups and downs. He has beaten a Tour de France winner in a road race, and he has hit a deer in the dark at 30 miles per hour. He has experienced friends and competitors being killed by cars while riding.
Danny knows that his body is somewhat giving out on him as he gets older, and he makes no secret of it while he talks about his rides.
“I was riding the Deer Lakes course last week and was thinking about my first race. It was the 4/5 race and I got dropped. I came back the next year and soloed away from the 1/2/3 race and won... God damn it! Now I am slow again!”
After being dropped by the younger, faster guys on a climb he has bridged back up and proclaimed, “I used to eat guys like you for breakfast.”
And he is right. Some of Danny’s results were incredible. A 54 minute 40k time trial with zero aero equipment and 3 turnarounds, a first place at the Mt. Evans junior hill climb, which earned him an invitation to the Olympic training center, and a top ten at the famous USPRO cycling championship are all amazing results, along with the aforementioned two RAAM wins
It must be hard trying to stay in a sport that almost requires you to stay young. Many of the people Danny raced alongside during the 1980’s have put their bicycles away and not touched them since. They quit while they were on top of the sport. Danny’s good friend at the time, Matt Eaton, is still the only American to have ever won the
Tour of Ireland. The retirees are comparable to Marilyn Monroe dying while beautiful. Picture her in your mind. Now imagine her as a wrinkled 80 year-old woman, and your Grandfather saying, “She was beautiful in her prime.” Danny was fast in his prime, and to those who don’t know him now, he is just the crazy guy who is constantly riding his bike around the neighborhood.
However, it is good that there are new generations of cyclists coming through Danny’s world. Danny makes it his job to show new riders cycling, and life, as he sees them. Whether it be racing, or just riding, Danny has his perception of the way cycling should be, and he will take every bit of an 8 hour bike ride to share it with you. Each and every bike ride should be an adventure, and there should be no holding back.
“You have ridden a bicycle around Pittsburgh for how many years and you have never thought to go down that road?” he will proclaim as you come upon pavement in the middle of nowhere. “Shameful! You are now shamed into riding down a new road!”
And as soon as you turn onto the road, he will proclaim “NEW ROAD!” with gumption.
In his mind, Danny has a database of roads and places. It is more than an atlas, it is more than a GPS. He knows everything that is within a 150-mile radius of Pittsburgh, and contains information that Garmin could not conjure up if they had to.
“There is a spring on the right hand side about a mile up where we can fill our bottles,” or “On very, very detailed maps, this town is called Gastonville.” It turns out that Gastonville is a church and a graveyard. He will memorize the roads that others have and haven’t been on, and will guide rides as such, tallying up the mileage of “NEW ROADS!” along the way and giving a total of “NEW ROADS!” at the end of the ride.
It is unbelievable to Danny that someone could ride the same roads twice before riding every single road once. As soon as every single road is ridden once, the rider then needs to expand his “radius” of roads.
“You have a 30 mile radius (60 mile round trip rides), that you have muddied like a dog on a leash! Your 30 mile leash is holding you back from beautiful new roads and new rides!”
He keeps a mental index of where people live, where people grew up, how many different ways he can cross the mountain ridge from his house in a single day, which roads he has ridden, with whom he has ridden them with and how many times. When the mental index fails, he has his
journals. They list every road that he rides every single day and with whom. If it is the first time on a road, or with a new person, they get a special pen color in the journal. The second time, it is another color, and the third and thereafter, it is the final color. He has over 30 years worth of these journals outlining every single ride that he has ever done in that time.
Danny acts as if cycling is a locked door, to which he has the key. He takes pride in showing it off, pride in new people learning what he has known for years. The moment he sees joy or excitement on a cyclist’s face as a reaction to a beautiful remote road or the feeling of accomplishment after a long ride, he reminds them that they could do it daily as he does. Danny loves taking people on their first century, or first double century, or first ride over the local mountain ridge. Since his days of competition have dwindled, much of his satisfaction now comes from sharing his knowledge and watching as others learn to enjoy it. He also has his road trips.
Danny’s trips consist of packing what most people would take on a regular ride, and leaving for weeks on end. He plans out his stops to stay with old friends, or friends of friends, or total strangers he has somehow found. He spaces the stops 200 - 250 miles apart, and cycles between them daily. Eventually he will reach his destination and base himself at a friend’s house for a week or so. During that week he will ride as much as possible, which for Danny is 700 - 1200 miles per week. After he has exhausted his welcome, he turns around and heads home. Somehow he manages a 3-week vacation on less than 100 dollars, and probably has more fun than most people spending thousands.
Not having a full-time job and just riding a bicycle would seem like an easy life to most, but it doesn’t seem so easy being Danny Chew. The goal of his life, to ride 1,000,000 miles, constantly looms overhead. Daily, weekly, yearly mileage all adds up to the single, distant goal. Sometime in his 80’s Danny should hit the 1,000,000 mark. That is, if he isn’t forced to take time off due to injury, poverty or death. Danny has watched friends die while riding. During the 2004 “Calvin’s 12 hour Challenge” a friend of Danny’s was struck from behind as he was making a left hand turn. Danny was upset for his friend, for the race promoter, for everybody who was hoping to finish the 12 hour race, and for himself, as he had planned to win the event.
Danny has put off all traditional things in life in pursuit of this single goal. He jokes that he is married to his bicycle. Despite his advanced degrees in mathematics, he has no aspirations of pursuing a career. Cycling is life for Danny. His bicycle has brought him so much, and taken him so far, but could also be the cause of the biggest letdown of his entire life—not hitting the 1,000,000 mile mark. Even if he does make it, he will not get there first. There was a man from Britain in the 1950’s, and a guy in New Jersey who is already at 1.3 million or so. Danny is not doing it to be the first, or the most, or the best. Danny is pursuing it as so many others pursue cycling, because it lets an individual pursue an individual goal. The million miles is Danny’s goal. Others will be content riding for years to complete a century. For some, simply riding a few times a week and enjoying each ride will bring the same feeling of accomplishment. Even if he doesn’t get to the goal, the time was not wasted, as he has influenced and taught so many people how to enjoy cycling in a new way, on a “NEW ROAD!”