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Now Paralyzed, Iconic Cyclist Danny Chew Plans For 30 More Years Of Biking

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA


Danny Chew loves numbers, and one of his most important numbers is 1 million. That’s how many miles he plans to ride his bicycle in his lifetime.

“I’ve kept track of my miles going all way back to 1978, in high school,” he said. “I have a book for every year. That’s almost 40 years’ worth of books now.”

With 783,000 miles already behind him, the plan was to ride about 20,000 miles a year until he reached his goal. But on Sept. 4, everything changed.

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
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Danny Chews physical therapist, Kate Drolet, helps him into his wheelchair at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago on November 21, 2016.

“I was getting ready for 100-plus mile ride that I had done thousands of times before,” Chew recalled. “I had my normal huge breakfast. I was riding with a female friend and 40 miles into the ride we were going down a slight hill and I must have gotten dizzy and blacked out. I thought I blew a front tire out.”

Chew veered off the road and crashed. When he came to, he couldn’t move below the chest. Now a paraplegic, he’s spent the last two months at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The man who once biked across the entire country in a little over a week is now working to master the task of dressing himself.

“Things that most people take for granted, like putting on a pair of pants, takes you one minute, takes me 25 minutes,” he said.

Chew’s gotten a lot faster. He can now get dressed in less than a half hour. In his wheelchair, he can do a lap around the hospital floor in two minutes, down from four. But he still has a long road ahead of him.

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Danny Chew moves his legs off a mat table he uses to practice getting out of bed and into his wheelchair on November 21, 2016. Kate Drolet is his physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

  “This is nearly as hard for me in my current state as climbing a dirty dozen hill back before the accident,” he said.

Chew created the Dirty Dozen with his brother and a friend in 1983. The race is held every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and challenges cyclists to ride the 13 steepest hills in the city, along a 50-plus mile route that takes about eight hours to complete.

Five people attempted the race that first year, and just three finished. But in recent years, hundreds of people have turned out to compete, whether against the field or just themselves.

“It’s freakin’ hard. These hills are the steepest hills in Pittsburgh, they’re insane,” said Patty George, a fellow ultra-cyclist and protégé of Chew’s. “People will be going up these climbs … they may just get to the point where they can’t go forward anymore, it’s too late, you can’t clip out, you’re done. It’s like boom, you’re going over, slow motion fall.”

George used to live in Pittsburgh before she moved to Denver, but she came back to town for a fundraiser benefitting Chew at Over The Bar Bicycle Café on the South Side last weekend. George said Chew would make up a unique mantra for each one of the cyclists he mentored.

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
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Danny Chew's physical therapist, Kate Drolet, shows his brother-in-law, John Perezluha, how to combat Chew's low blood pressure between laps around the hospital floor. People who are paralyzed offer suffer from low blood pressure as blood pools in the lower half of their body. Leaning him back helps bring the blood back to his heart and increase his blood pressure.

“I always think of what he would say which is ‘You love to ride your bike immensely,’” she said. “Sometimes he’d even text me ‘immensely’ and I knew exactly what he meant.”

Chew said the first few weeks after his accident were hard; he even contemplated suicide. But now, with less than two weeks until he leaves the hospital, his focus has once again turned to his million-mile goal.

“The hand cycle is going to be twice as hard. Fifty miles on a hand cycle is like 100 miles on a regular bike,” he said. “The plan is to start doing 10,000 miles a year on a hand cycle. I’ll have to live into my 80s, originally I was going to get it by the time I’m 70.”

Chew won’t be able to make it to the Dirty Dozen this year, but he’ll be livestreamed to call the beginning of the race. He said he expects as many as 340 riders this year, which would set a new record – another number he’s not likely to forget.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.
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