Bud Harris, Pittsburgh's gift to two wheels, gets his due

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Bud Harris was a guy who knew how to make things happen.

"He had a half-dozen careers that I knew about," said Eric Schaffer, who co-founded the Thrift Drug Classic with Mr. Harris back in 1991.

The classic was the 108-mile bicycle race that Lance Armstrong won before the world learned his name. He first put his name on the cycling map by conquering Mount Washington, seven years before he won the Tour de France.

If that was the only thing Mr. Harris did for cycling in Pittsburgh, he'd be remembered, but he did so much more. And late tomorrow afternoon, the cycling track he helped launch off Washington Boulevard will be renamed in honor of Mr. Harris, who died last June at 75.

I was out at the 11-year-old track on Saturday with Mr. Harris' widow, Ann, and Mr. Schaffer, watching rank amateurs and serious cyclists take lap after lap on the half-mile loop, and we talked about Bud.

Mr. Harris, a 1952 graduate of Allderdice High, was a photographer who, with Alan Orlansky, co-founded the city's first high-end bike shop, Pittsburgh Pro Bicycles in Squirrel Hill. That was in the mid-1980s and Mr. Harris' enthusiasm for the sport was infectious.


Brian O'Neill's book, "The Paris of Appalachia: Pittsburgh in the Twenty-first Century," is available in the PG store.

In 1989, Mr. Schaffer, a lawyer who became a serious cyclist after befriending Mr. Harris, ran into Tom Murphy, the state representative from the North Side who had just finished second in the mayor's race and already was eyeing a second run. Mr. Murphy asked Mr. Schaffer how he'd set up a cycling race in Pittsburgh.

"I'd call Bud Harris," was Mr. Schaffer's answer. "He'd figure it out."

Soon enough, the two cyclists and the man who would be mayor were having coffee, and the idea for the Thrift Drug Classic was born. Mr. Harris, said Mr. Schaffer, was one of those guys who could come up with five ideas in as many minutes "and two of them would be really good."

The Thrift Drug Classic ran from 1991 to 1997 before the drug chain was sold to Eckerd. The bike race slipped its chain and crashed, so to speak, but not before Lance Armstrong won the race three consecutive years and Mr. Harris helped persuade the U.S. Cycling Committee to use the grueling Pittsburgh race as part of the U.S. Olympic Team Cycling Trials in 1996.

Not long after that, Mr. Harris and his old cycling friend, Oscar Swan, helped persuade the city to put a cycling/inline skating oval on the place where motorists once took driver's tests. The banked track opened in the spring of 1999.

Duane Ashley, the city's director of operations, recalled Mr. Harris as an unflappable, calming influence when the Allegheny Cycling Association got the boot from the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot in the late '90s, ending a 27-year tradition of races there.

The state police had just vacated its Washington Boulevard facility, which is part of Highland Park, and so building a cycling track there was right in Mayor Murphy's power alley. Mr. Ashley got the green light and the track was built by the Department of Public Works, utilizing the city's asphalt plant just up the road.

This past Saturday, Steve Marlette, 46, of Regent Square, was cycling hard on a warming late morning. He pulled up to us and told his friend, Mr. Schaffer, that he'd arrived around 9:30 a.m. and had gone 35.5 miles. It was 11:12 a.m. (You could give me until 11:12 p.m. and not get 35 miles. How about you?)

Races are held at the track every Tuesday and Wednesday night for 22 weeks, beginning in April and running into September. They begin around 6 p.m. There are often special events on Saturdays. Admission is free for spectators.

"They're fun, they're fast, and a little dangerous," Mr. Schaffer, 56, said of the races. "The last time I was in a race here I woke up in Presby, and I have somebody else's tendon holding my shoulder together.

"Aug. 29, 2008, if memory serves."

Perhaps only a cyclist can say that and grin.

The dedication ceremony will be at 5:45 p.m. Wednesday. Mr. Harris' daughter, Susan Smith, and son, Matt Harris, will be coming in from Broomfield, Colo., and Holyoke, Mass. Families are welcome to the picnic at no charge. Races begin at 6:15 p.m.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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