The Capital City of Coffeeneuring: Pittsburgh, PA

When the Coffeeneuring Challenge first began, I had no idea who would participate and what cities would be represented. Over the years, Pittsburgh has consistently emerged as the city with the most participants.

Last year, Pittsburgh coffeeneurs put together a poster announcing the challenge, and also worked with a local bike shop to coordinate both a kickoff and a closing event. Curious about the Pittsburgh cycling scene and why Pittsburgh has embraced coffeeneuring so, I reached out to Emma and Q – coffeeneuring regulars – to learn more.

In today’s post we talk coffeeneuring, community, Pittsburgh cycling and infrastructure, and the Great Allegheny Passage. All photos appearing in this post are courtesy of Emma and Q.

Many thanks, Emma and Q, for touring us through your coffeeneuring town! 

Pittsburgh Coffeeneuring Emma and Q

Pittsburgh has become an avid coffeeneuring city. What is it about Pittsburgh and coffeeneuring?

Q: I would cite three primary reasons:

1. A pretty strong and connected bike culture. Pittsburgh hasn’t always been a bike city. 15-20 years ago if you biked in the city there was a good chance you knew most of the people you saw biking around the city.

Our bike advocacy group BikePGH has done great work on both advocating for infrastructure as well as simply supporting a culture that supports many aspects of bike culture from purely recreational to daily commuters. So even though you might not recognize all the people you see biking in the city anymore, I still think there is a tight camaraderie amongst Pittsburgh bicyclists.

2. Climate. Pittsburgh can be a grey, depressing city at times, especially as winter nears. I think a lot of us recognize that as autumn descends and the days get shorter and the air gets cooler, it is important to force ourselves to get out and get on our bikes. Coffeeneuring gives a good structure for continuing to get out and avoid going into hibernation mode too early.

3. Pittsburghers love a good challenge. We are the City of Champions after all. I think we often see ourselves as the underdog who wants to overcome the odds. So we see bigger cities with strong cycling communities like D.C., New York, and Portland, and want to prove that we can overcome the odds and be the best coffeeneuring city.

Emma: I think there’s a bit of a big-fish-in-a-small-pond thing that can happen in Pittsburgh. We’re a city on the smaller side, but big enough to count as a “real” city — that sweet spot where if you want to do something, there are lots of people to say “yes!” and few people who’d shut you down because it’s “their” project. There’s an interesting kind of engagement without territorialism for a city that also has an undercurrent of love-it-or-leave-it!

But for sure Q is right — the gray of winter in Pittsburgh is brutal and people dread it, even beginning in our beautiful golden autumn, so convincing yourself to just keep going outside has a survival-mechanism appeal to it.

Pittsburgh Coffeeneuring Emma and Q

You-all made posters announcing the Coffeeneuring Challenge that you hung in local businesses, and also organized a coffeeneuring kick-off event at a local bike shop, Thick Bikes. Tell me about how you set up the challenge in Pittsburgh in 2015, and what it was like to have a place like Thick Bikes actively support the Coffeeneuring Challenge?

Q: The posters and the kickoff event both happened separately on their own. I think here in Pittsburgh we take the grassroots idea of Coffeeneuring seriously. Vannevar and RustyRed were the ones behind the posters and Emma and I were behind the kickoff event. They both just came from us saying “We like this thing. It’s fun. How can we get more people involved and increase the community effect of the challenge?”

Originally the intent was to have the kickoff event be a “coffeeneuring in the wild,” but the day ended up being the epitome of a cold, grey, rainy Pittsburgh autumn day.

Seeing the weather forecast I contacted Thick, who had recently just expanded into their new larger storefront and asked them if they would be down to host the event. Chris and the Thick crew are great and super supportive of the Pittsburgh bike community and were totally down for having us do it there. It probably didn’t hurt that we were offering to bring them coffee and baked goods on a Saturday morning.

Emma: Q and I are both what you might call reluctant leaders – the sort of people who like to see fun stuff happen around town, and so we make some of it happen! I think sometimes there’s an idea that there’s a barrier or too much work or investment to make, to set things in motion, but all Q and I did was send a few emails! It often takes so little to bust out of inertia and make something happen! Plus the stakes are so low: What if nobody comes?! Oh, well, I guess we’ll eat donuts at a bike shop. HOW TRAGIC.

As Q said, the day of the kickoff event was gray and rainy and blahhhhh. If I hadn’t told people to meet me anywhere, I might have stayed home. But I hopped on my bike with panniers full of homemade donuts, and had what turned out to be a lovely ride in weather that was not bad at all.

That was such a good reminder of why I like coffeeneuring — forget your dread! Nothing’s really ever as bad as your imagination is capable of making it out to be.

I got in the door dripping wet and this ten year old kid said in astonishment, “Did you ride your bike in the RAIN? Why??!!” to which I got to reply “DONUTS!” It seemed to satisfy her curiosity.

I love a good de-centralized project! A fun thing that happened this year, via the BikePGH messageboard, was a more empowered-to-organize and more social aspect. You’d see posts like “Hey, I’m gonna be doing my Coffeeneuring ride from this starting point at this time if you wanna join me!”

Here’s a link to a snap of the poster, from Vannevar’s post on the BikePGH messageboard.

Pittsburgh Coffeeneuring Emma and Q

How does Pittsburgh set up as a cycling town? Also, how does being at the north end of the GAP trail shape Pittsburgh’s cycling identity?

Q: The goods: As stated before, I think the biking community here is great. Really supportive. Great diversity of different types of bikers. Great institutions like Bike Pittsburgh, Dirt Rag/Bicycle Times, Kraynicks and FreeRide (community bike shops), great network of trails, bikelanes, etc that continue to grow. The hills.

The bads: Also the hills. Seriously we’re big fans of hills. We love climbing and bombing down hills, but sometimes it makes getting around a challenge. Being Pennsylvania and the rustbelt we have our fair share of potholes and other crumbling infrastructure that provide for a variety of hazards. Streets here are crazy, judged from many standpoints. Lots of one-ways, narrow streets, tight curves, etc. Mix in some aggro/distracted/shitty drivers and biking in Pittsburgh is not without its dangers.

I think having the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail heading out of Pittsburgh is a huge thing. It is great to ride right out of town and connect with this mostly traffic-free route all the way to D.C.

Local people can take the GAP out of town and there are places to camp out 30, 40 and 50 miles out. There are some pretty easy options for overnighter trips to just get away or for people new to bike touring to try out their setup. Being able to do these little trips are one of the things that I think help convince people that they can do the whole trip to D.C.

The route is so accessible and makes bike touring such an easy option for so many. You can go fully loaded and camp out or you can go super light and eat at restaurants and stay in hotels.

The D.C. trip via the GAP is the easy option in what I see as the triumvirate of Pittsburgh bike challenges. The other two – the Dirty Dozen and Crush the Commonwealth – are unsanctioned races that veer toward the obscene end of the bike challenge spectrum

Dirty Dozen climbs up 13 of Pittsburgh’s steepest streets. Crush the Commonwealth is a Pittsburgh to Philadelphia race that winners complete in around a day and a half’s time. Bicyclists in Pittsburgh like to ask themselves “Could I do that?” but the trip to D.C. via the GAP/C&O is accessible to the average city biker.

Emma: I haven’t lived anywhere else as a cyclist, so it’s tough to compare from a daily commute perspective, but I’ve ridden in lots of places, and Pittsburgh is not without its shortcomings. I slid out on some wet trolley tracks in Toronto once, and I was never in any danger because the drivers all gave me tons of room.

I remember thinking, while on the ground, “If this happened at home, I might be dead.” That’s a dark sentiment, but overall, drivers are not confident around cyclists in Pittsburgh and wind up doing a lot of dangerous maneuvers to get around us and get to what they perceive as a “safer” position on the road, including too-close passing and not giving us much buffer when they’re behind us.

Pittsburgh’s got a lot of old, narrow, blown out roads with street parking on both sides, so it’s tough for cyclists and for drivers, frankly. And heaven help the bus drivers!

There’s so much good stuff here, but the best best best best best absolute best thing is the terrain. Hills and rivers and bridges and sidewalks that are staircases! I wouldn’t trade it for anything! This is the most wonderful, fun terrain for riding! It’s varied — keep it flat by hugging the rivers, or huck yourself up over some big old hills to go across town the shorter way.

Being at the end of the GAP trail has been great for Pittsburgh. It means we’re a destination city for people from all over the place, and that is so special for a smaller city! I love reading impressions of Pittsburgh in GAP/C&O trip reports! It’s easy to take it for granted here, because you can just roll out your front door and ride to another city in a few days without interacting with cars at all, but without the necessary experience for a true wilderness experience.

It also means there is this greater acceptance of the notion of bike touring here, because it’s something people hear about a lot, due to the GAP. Instead of “You know you can drive a car there, right?” you hear “Cool! I want to do that trip someday!”

Pittsburgh Coffeeneuring Emma and Q

From the outside looking in, there seems to be a lot of camaraderie among the Pittsburgh cycling community. How would you describe it, as well as the coffeeneuring community within that?

Q: There definitely is a lot of comeraderie. I think a lot of it comes down to Pittsburgh being a relatively small city. We saw this in our music scene too, maybe more 15-20 years ago, but where there was a lot more intermingling of different scenes. You’d have metal bands playing with emo bands playing with pop punk bands. Straight edge and drunk punks hand in hand.

The same could be said about biking here. You might not be into racing or mountain biking or commuting, but the city is small enough that you have a sense of what is going on in those communities and you appreciate what they do.

You see the work and events that BikePGH do; they explore the whole spectrum of biking and bring these folks together. Look at the list of our BikeFest events or look at the people who come out for the BikePGH fundraiser and you have spandexed folks on expensive bikes and crusty kids on dumpstered bikes hanging out together.

I did an interview for my old zine awhile back with some “punk librarians.” We were talking about our music scene and one of them said “Even our hipsters aren’t so hip.” I think that relates back to our bike scene. There isn’t too much attitude here. People are having a good time riding bikes and want more people to enjoy riding bikes and riding different bikes in different ways.

Regarding coffeeneuring here, I think the people who actually complete the challenge tend towards the scrappier, commuter end of the biking spectrum. I mean, on a nice day you can ride by a local coffee shop like Tazo D’Oro and you’ll see a group of spandexed riders chilling out front drinking fancy coffee drinks, but I don’t think too many of them actually take part in Coffeeneuring.

The spirit is within them but I think coffeeneuring speaks to a certain element who enjoy not only the ride and the hot beverage but also enjoy the documentation and the sharing.

Emma: Pittsburghers have a tendency to glorify underdogs, and the cycling community is not immune to that tendency! For a long time, there was a sense of cyclists being hard-as-nails, and ten years ago, you’d know or recognize all the other cyclists.

Pete Jordan wrote a book called In the City of Bikes, and when he came through Pittsburgh on his book tour, he read a segment about his time living here. He described seeing no other bikes at all, all winter long, and then one day, seeing another tire tread in the snow. He excitedly tried to find the other cyclist, only to discover that it was his own track from the previous day. Pretty representative of Old Pittsburgh.

It’s not like that anymore. There are so many cyclists out on the streets and in the woods! BikePGH, our wonderful, amazing advocacy group, has been around long enough now that we are seeing the fruits of their labors, including some separated bike lanes.

We got a bike share program last year. We have an indoor bike park now (the Wheel Mill). Finally got all the public transit fitted with bike racks. We have amazing mountain biking in this area. There are so many ways to ride and so many riders now that there’s not a lot of cohesiveness around one cycling “culture,” but I do think that most cyclists respect the other cyclists.

There’s this sense that we’re all in it together, because we’re nuts. No matter how much infrastructure and safety initiatives and support there is, topographically speaking, riding here is always going to be hard and awesome!

I don’t want to speak for my fellow coffeeneurs, but I do think we’re all pretty sweet on each other. There’s this fondness that develops when you’re all doing something together, even if you’re doing it separately!

Pittsburgh Coffeeneuring Emma and Q

What is the coffee shop scene like in Pittsburgh and how bike-accessibility are they? Are there any in particular that you think cater to cyclists?

Q: I’m not a coffee drinker, just a tea guy… but the options for tea are expanding in Pittsburgh in recent years. More places having interesting options, not just the same old handful of standard options.

I think Tazza D’Oro is the only cafe that explicitly caters to cyclists, but thanks to the work of Bike Pittsburgh and the city, you can usually count on their being bike racks to lock up to around most of the neighborhoods where cafes are prevalent.

Emma: Pittsburgh’s coffee scene has grown tremendously in the last ten years! The standards have been raised! There’s always room for diner coffee, but there’s also now room for multiple places that make amazing espresso, and shoot, there’s a Pittsburgh Specialty Coffee Week now, with events like the Latte Art Throwdown! It even coincides with the Coffeeneuring Challenge!

I think most cafes have figured out that they’ll get more business if they make it easy to park a bike there! There are a few that are super accommodating. Tazza D’Oro is an example — they’re a meeting spot for club rides and sell spare tubes at the counter!

Coffeeneuring has brought rideability and parking onto the radar of a lot of cafe owners, especially for cafes that are a little further out from the center of town.

Pittsburgh Coffeeneuring Emma and Q

What’s next for the Pittsburgh coffeeneuring?

Q: I hope we can keep up the kickoff event and maybe even try to arrange some more meetups throughout the coffeeneuring weeks. I think this was the year that it really started catching the eye of the cafes and the bikeshops, so I just imagine it will continue to grow.

Maybe there will be some Pittsburgh-specific coffeeneuring mini challenges such as at least one cafe in the Northside, Southside, East End, West End and Downtown? Maybe some Pittsburgh-centric reward to compliment our coffeeneuring patch?

Emma: I think it’ll keep growing here. It’s the kind of project that is somewhat contagious in that if you see a friend complete the challenge, then you make plans to tackle it the next year.

I organize the Pittsburgh fun-a-day project, which is a month-long daily art practice, and it definitely sees that kind of exponential participation growth, because each year, a participant’s pal comes to the exhibition and is totally amped for the next year. Then they do it along with their pal, and another friend says “Oh man, I’m totally doing it next year!”

On top of that, come on, we are the City of Champions. We have a title to keep! There’s a t-shirt folks wear around here that says “Ice or grass, we’ll kick your ass!” It refers to hockey and football, but maybe it’s time to amend it to include something about wheels!

Pittsburgh Coffeeneuring Emma and Q
Still work to do on the Pittsburgh cycling infrastructure…
What question did I forget to ask you?

Q: What should someone completing the GAP do once they roll into Pittsburgh and make it all the way to Point State Park? Assuming it is summer, I suggest continuing on across the Fort Duquesne bridge. There’s a trail right out of the park leading to the bike/pedestrian sidewalk along the bridge.

There are the “water steps”, a big sculptural water fountain next to PNC Park that you can wade in and look out across the river towards downtown and around at the surrounding hills. Refreshing and enjoyable on a hot day, especially after putting in a bunch of miles on your bike. It’s even better after dark.

Emma: Should you guys ride from D.C. to Pittsburgh and come hang out? Yes! Yes you should! We’ll show you all the best views of this town!

1 Comment

  1. I am one of those Pittsburgh commuter coffeeneurs, 200+ miles/month, all year, just going back and forth. I have a patch from one year, and got five or more rides in a couple more years. It’s true, the Bike-Pgh message board is where a lot of the camaraderie got started, and even with a couple of website overhauls, it still holds a lot of us together. (Facebook isn’t for everyone!)

    I would suggest seven mini-destinations for Pittsburgh coffeeneurs:
    1) North of the rivers, in the level/flat areas
    2) North, but up a big hill, or in the suburbs
    3) South of the rivers, in the level/flat areas
    4) South, but up a hill, or in the suburbs
    5) Anywhere West; West is particularly challenging, whether flat or hilly
    6) Between the rivers, but inside the “Blue Belt”, roughly the city line
    7) East, beyond the Blue Belt; or to a distant diagonal like Bridgeville, Cheswick, Mckeesport or Coraopolis.
    I wouldn’t hold anyone to this, but if you can manage to accomplish that set, you are definitely getting around.


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