Cycling legend Danny Chew, 54, broke his neck and was paralyzed below the waist after drifting off the road and crashing in a ditch while out on a ride Sunday, according to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. According to his friend Cassie Schumacher, who was riding with him when he crashed, doctors say it’s too early to tell what his prognosis is.
While Chew’s name may not register with most cycling fans, let alone most sports fans, he’s one of the most remarkable American athletes of his generation. The top-line description would have him as a two-time winner and eight-time finisher of the Race Across America who once rode his bike across the continent in eight days, seven hours, and 14 minutes and co-founder of Pittsburgh’s infamous Dirty Dozen, a race up 13 of the city’s steepest hills, including a cobblestone one rising at a 37-percent grade. More than any of that, though, he’s a singularly inspiring and even heroic figure, who’s lived the way he’s wanted to live and done the things he’s wanted to do.
In childhood, Chew set a goal of riding his bicycle one million miles, and since 1968, his life has more or less been organized around meeting it. (He’s currently up around 800,000.) Serious road racing, transcontinental jaunts, and everyday rides out into who knows where have all been part of a commitment that had him riding over 15,000 miles a year for decades, but while his personal website tracks a variety of records and statistics, the best way to appreciate his riding is probably to read a 2008 Urban Velo feature story that lays out what it takes to be Danny Chew:
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.”
More than a singleminded emphasis on simply getting as many miles in as possible, though, Chew’s approach to cycling involves a fixation on the possibilities inherent in each new ride, with every one being a chance to break out of a rut and find new things in old places you thought you knew:
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!”
According to Schumacher, Chew is already planning to work around the impediments offered by paralysis. (“I’ll just have to finish my million miles on a hand cycle,” he said. “So be it.”)
Chew has insurance, but it carries a large deductible, according to the Post-Gazette. His family has set up a crowdfunding site to help cover his medical expenses, and there are far worse uses for your money.