Local dispatch / The Tour de Burgh: Best seat to see city may be on bike ride

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On a sun-splashed July morning while equipped with one son, one spouse and three bicycles, I watch the Port Authority T pull into the Mt. Lebanon station. Our destination: Downtown bike trails.

Whoosh! Suddenly the doors fly open and we mount our bikes onto the car. Bam! Abruptly they slam shut and our version of the Tour de France -- Pittsburgh style -- begins.

As the T glides through Beechview, I sit back and count the multiple blessings of bicycling. It's healthy. It's affordable. It's accessible. It's green.

It also opens up unexplored vistas and offers unique perspectives on wheels. When the changing scenery sweeps past, bombarding your senses with eclectic sights and sounds, what better way to absorb a city's history, culture and topography?

What about our steep hills? How do you cycle up those? That's easy. Avoid them. Stick to the river trails. Then you won't have to be Lance Armstrong to bike around the Burgh.

The T emerges from the Mount Washington tunnel and crosses over to the First Avenue Station, where we disembark at the Eliza Furnace Trail. Furiously pushing the pedals and tightly gripping the handlebars, we bike up the so-called Jail Trail as the Monongahela River flows by and structural landmarks loom above -- Duquesne University, the Armstrong Tunnels, the Allegheny County Jail.

"Look, they're waving at us!" my son yells, spying inmates in prison garb peering through a huge jail window. Pity the confined prisoners who can't pedal with us as we approach the historic Hot Metal Bridge.

Dating back to 1900, this sturdy truss bridge isn't ornate like the Pont Alexandre, yet the promenade imparts wondrous views from its latticed perch. We stare over the railing at the city skyline glinting under a pure blue sky while the green river glistens below.

Gone are the toxic fumes and grimy soot from Pittsburgh's gritty past, when massive steel mills defined industry, ejecting smoke while towering over the riverbanks. Instead of coke works, we find the SouthSide Works on the opposite side.

Beyond, we cycle up a dusty path covered by trees along the riverfront, with water shimmering below the embankment. Chased by fleas and harassed by bees, we encounter a coterie of colorful insects on the trail -- red ladybugs, yellow caterpillars, orange butterflies.

Escaping the thicket, we eventually reach Station Square, former site of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, converted to a tourist attraction by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation in 1976.

Knots of people cluster around the flamboyant fountain in Bessemer Court where jets shoot zany water sprays 40 feet up to the blaring beat of dance music -- children squealing, teens grinding and grown-ups carousing. The raucous revelry reminds me of the Place du Tertre in Montmartre. Not bad for a reinvented train yard.

We cycle past the boating docks and Sheraton and up to the Fort Pitt Bridge. Few sensations are as exhilarating as soaring across this arched double-decker span on bikes at perilous velocities, high above the endless waters, ferocious winds whipping our hair as the roar of traffic blasts our ears. Sparkling blurs flash by -- gold bridges, silver lights -- squinting, burning, swaying and expanding in the intense sunlight.

We coast through Point State Park, passing the Fort Pitt Blockhouse to climb up the Fort Duquesne Bridge, stopping to inspect the panorama above the Allegheny River.

After winding down the ramp to the North Shore, we proceed beyond Heinz Field to the Carnegie Science Center, then turn back toward PNC Park. Along the shore, slate rocks slope down to the water's edge. Currents wash against them with swishing sounds. Kayakers float serenely on the river's surface.

There's a baseball game today. Heading back across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, we witness the unswerving devotion of Pirates fans streaming to the ballpark.

In town, we ride up Penn Avenue near the Benedum Center where theater-goers attend a Sunday matinee. Tired, dazed and bedraggled, our trek over, stragglers no more, we return to sidewalks and buses, stoplights and cars, engulfed by the urban maelstrom.

Up the Boulevard of the Allies (not exactly the Champs-Elysees) and into the First Avenue Station (not exactly the Arc de Triomphe), we feel elated, infused with victory -- just like racers in the Tour de France.


Diane Vrabel, a training coordinator who lives in Mt. Lebanon, can be reached at dialmark@verizon.net. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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