When Jeff Krakoff of Upper St. Clair was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 18 years ago, he was 31 years old and knew life would present challenges. However, Krakoff, now 49, vowed he’d never let the disease rule his life. And what better way to prove his point than to bicycle 331.25 miles?
With eight of his friends, Krakoff accomplished that feat. Over five days that included the Labor Day weekend, they cycled the length of the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Towpath, finishing in Washington, D.C., for the ArthRIDEis fundraising campaign.
Krakoff and the other riders took the adventure to increase awareness and to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation of Western Pennsylvania. Rheumatoid arthritis affects 1.5 million people in the United States, causing severe joint pain and inflammation as the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues.
Osteoarthritis, another form of arthritis that is also painful, usually results from natural wear and tear on the joints and does not involve the immune system.
For Krakoff, managing his rheumatoid arthritis is done through medication and regular exercise, such as biking.
The bike tour began when a group of weekend soccer players decided, over bagels and coffee, to branch out from soccer to cycling. The idea was hatched in the winter, and training began in the spring.
Only one other in the group, Pete Chiste, suffers from arthritis, osteoarthritis rather than rheumatoid. The 55-year-old Peters Township resident has arthritis in one knee.
“My doctor told me I had the right knee of a 20-year-old and the left knee of a 70-year-old, and that a knee replacement was in my future,” Chiste said
He turned to cycling to strengthen the muscles around his knees, and thanks to the conditioning and the recent trek, Chiste has almost given up wearing a knee brace while playing soccer. He referred to the more than 300-mile bike trip as a “tremendous experience.”
According to Chiste, an employee of PNC Bank, the group’s youngest rider was 41 and the oldest was 57. “Everyone else was in between,” he said. “It was not a young group.”
Chiste’s wife, Annette, drove one of the support vehicles, so the couple was able to enjoy the scenery and companionship of the other riders.
“Americans today tend to travel by airplane from city to city and don’t see what’s in between,” Chiste said. He enjoyed the small towns along the passage.
For their efforts, the riders collected $5,500 for arthRIDEis. Krakoff captained the nonprofit group.
The trek began Aug. 29 near McKeesport. On average, the group traveled 65 miles a day. Support vehicles in close proximity hauled spare bicycle parts. Nights were spent in bed-and-breakfast inns. After arriving in Washington, D.C., Sept. 1, the ride home was easier. The group drove back to Pittsburgh in the support vehicles.
One participant, Kurt Meissner of Upper St. Clair, began to ride bikes while living in Southern California.
When he moved to the Pittsburgh area 11 years ago, he found the trails were not as conducive to standard riding, so he eventually bought a trail bike in 2009.
Meissner, 45, is a mechanical engineer who does not suffer from any form of arthritis. He finds bicycling to be a great way to stay in shape and was quick to agree to the arthRIDESis trek. The Labor Day ride was the easy part, he said. Training was more difficult, and the last 20 miles of the ride, his bicycle seat broke and he completed the trek standing up while he pedaled.
“I was really surprised just how gorgeous (the passage) is,” Meissner said.
Also completing the trip were Upper St. Clair residents Vic Walczak and Jon and Ellen Hart; Bethel Park residents Craig and Laura Hoffman; and Lori Heinecke from South Park.
As for a follow-up journey, Krakoff said there has been some discussion about making the Great Allegheny Passage an annual event.
“Or do we do something different?” Krakoff asked. No decisions have been made.
To donate to arthRIDEis, visit www.crowdrise.com/bikeride/fundraiser/jeffkrakoff, or for more information, call 412-250-3341.