Pittsburgh's Pedalers

Photo by Amy Garbark

Photo by Amy Garbark

I’ve been to Pittsburgh once on a writing assignment, so I’ve already done some sightseeing. That’s good because this trip I’m focusing on seeing people… people on bikes.

Amy, who hosts me for two days, remembers a time “five or 10 years ago when there weren’t many bikers, and I knew everyone on the street.” The Pittsburgh bike scene has grown, but is still intimate for everybody to know almost everybody.

For example, Steevo, who lives with Amy, is a local legend and winner of the Dirty Dozen an insane 10 years in a row. This unofficial bike race is a trial by ordeal up Pittsburgh’s 13 steepest hills the Saturday after Thanksgiving. No hill is below 20% grade and one hill is a leg-quivering 37% grade. (This video sums up the day. You can see Amy with her Go Steevo sign at 2:25 just before the real bike carnage up Canton Avenue begins!)

I tell Steevo he won’t have to worry about competition from Countri Bike come November—I’ll be in New Mexico. Hopefully it's flat there.

Curbside in Lawrenceville
Amy’s home in the working-class Lawrenceville neighborhood is oven stuffy from this end-of-summer heat. I’m outside on the front stairs trying to catch a breeze and keeping an eye out for my next host, who is arriving by pickup truck to “spare me from the hills of Greenfield.”

Amy is waiting also. Her girl band has a jam session scheduled at her home. In fact, the wife of the Healthy Rides bike share mechanic who checked out Countri Bike is their bassist, and they all went camping last weekend.

“The bassist is always late,” laments Amy. The keyboardist already dragged her equipment into the house. It was longer than my bike.

Aside from having her own interior design business and making melodies on the side, Amy is a photographer. She whips out a new camera and shoots me riding around the block in the late afternoon sunlight.

Standing out in a crowd
In NYC there are more than 6,000 blue Citi Bikes. In Pittsburgh, there’s only one and it’s been getting noticed. After riding around town I once again end up at Point State Park where three rivers meet. I linger by the fountain as the sun drops lower, and then prepare to pedal back to Amy’s place.

Riding along the riverfront just opposite PNC Park, I’m surprised to find no railings to prevent someone from tumbling into the Allegheny River. I admire the rawness of this city as I pedal all alone under bridges before turning inland towards downtown.

I’m waiting at a light to turn left onto Penn Ave, a main street (with a protected bike lane!) that feeds into Pittsburgh’s triangular business core. The workday is over and people are scattering to more residential neighborhoods.

All of a sudden, a city bus makes a jumbo turn into my lane. Headlights dilate my pupils. I roll towards the curb to dodge it and see something else coming at me—a young guy in gold-rimmed glasses and matching blond hair.

I remove my earbuds to see what he needs.

“Hey you’re the guy from New York City! I work for Bike Pittsburgh, come get a drink with me… it’s my birthday!”

Bewildered and amused, I follow Dan a hundred feet to sidewalk seating of a bar where he’s joined by his girlfriend and their housemate. Dan and his girlfriend purchased a steal of a house in the Bloomfield neighborhood for about a year’s worth of my former rent in Brooklyn. Even though it’s his birthday he runs inside to get me a drink.

One of the bar owners comes outside to check on us.

“Damn, who brought a Citi Bike all the way here?” he booms with laughter.

Cedric is from Canarsie, Brooklyn and knows exactly what I’m riding. After a stint at the Waldorf-Astoria where at the ripe age of 23 he had “all the keys to all the rooms”—including the Presidential Suite in the Waldorf Towers—he moved to Pittsburgh and bought into this bar.

I tell Cedric I was a planner who frequently worked out of the Waldorf for events. He tells me about the time he hosted a raging Super Bowl party for 30 friends in a suite in the Towers and no one found out. Now that’s the kind of event planning I can get behind!

We finish our drinks and bike to an Argentinian grill in the Strip District called Gaucho Parrilla. Darkened downtown streets of Pittsburgh are deserted, but it feels great to be traveling in a cycle pod to share more conversation and food.

Meeting Dan and Scott
Dan is the kind of guy you like instantly. His good nature and energy for life far exceed his wiry frame. It’s hard to imagine Dan lifeless, but it happened. The New Jersey native was biking home with friends around the time that bars let out. He was wearing a helmet, had bike lights and was in a group, but the driver was blinded by booze.

Dan landed on the pavement in a coma. He was hospitalized for months. The driver left the scene, but the next day, Mother’s Day, the man’s own mother turned him into the police. The driver was a repeat DWI offender and his license had been suspended. He wasn’t supposed to be on the road. Now he’s in jail.

Dan shows me scars on his forearm the next day over lunch. I’m taking him out for a post-birthday meal after stopping by the offices of Bike Pittsburgh, the region’s cycling advocacy group, where Dan now works in business and education outreach.

Countri Bike pays a visit to Bike Pittsburgh's office

Countri Bike pays a visit to Bike Pittsburgh's office

I was there to chat with Scott, the executive director and co-founder of Bike Pittsburgh, who was named one of Pittsburgh’s Top 40 Under 40. He invited me for coffee and pinball, an odd pairing except at Kickback Pinball Cafe.

Scott recalls his own cross-country cycling journey in 1999 with friends right out of college. No smartphones, no social media and no money. These guys were so strapped for cash they only stayed in a hotel only once—because there was a tornado outside. They ate as cheaply as possible and washed in rivers and lakes. Scott says their stink was tremendous.

Waiting for Val
After riding around town in this heat, I’m in need of a shower myself. I’m still on Amy’s front steps waiting for my next host Val to pick me up. The founder of Pittsburgh’s only bike tour, Bike the Burgh Tours, saw my story on social media and reached out to see if I needed a place to stay. I’ve already stayed two nights with Amy and Steevo, so I welcome her offer.

I value the community and hospitality that you’ll find among Pittsburgh’s pedalers. Bike mechanics like Evan who tended to Countri Bike at Healthy Ride’s headquarters. Bike advocates like Dan who flagged me down in the street and bought me a drink on his birthday. Bike champions like Steevo who is interested to talk to me, a simple shared bike commuter. And bike entrepreneurs like Val who invited me into her home because she believes in what I am doing even more than I do.

She and her husband Michael are casual cyclists who met as Craigslist roommates in NYC’s East Village. Val’s story is next.