In Beechview, they encountered the steepest street in Pittsburgh. Canton Avenue has a 37-percent graded incline, and it taunted the cyclists as they gasped for breath and their legs slowly pumped the pedals, knowing that they could now walk their bikes faster than they could ride them. Some did. Others fell. — Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 27, 2006
I’m not sure when or how I first found out about the Dirty Dozen but decided this was one of the “must-do” rides for me — perhaps another in my “Bucket List.” If the weather was good, I would go ride. It was 17° when I left Somerset, Pa. — good enough!
Danny Chew is a two time champion of the Race Across America and has dubbed himself the “Million Mile Man” in trying to ride one million miles in his life. In 1983, Dan, his brother Tom (a 1980 Olympian cyclist himself), and Bob Gottlieb “wanted to showcase Pittsburgh’s steepest and toughest hills in one ride.” They created a hill climb race that takes one more than 50 miles through Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods but never getting more than 10 kilometers away from the center of the city.
This is not a sanctioned race. It’s more like an illegal drag race — people know where and when and they show up. Since there has been newspaper coverage the public knows as well. As late as 2003 it went off with only eight racers. But the past two years’ participation exceeded 100 riders.
The race takes place the Saturday after Thanksgiving. There is no online registration. Just show up between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and pay $5.00. No release or liability forms. No race jerseys or T-shirts commemorating the event. And there are no race bibs or bike numbers. Danny knows the challengers versus we mere mortals who are just attempting to finish.
I left Somerset at 7:20 a.m. and it was cold. I expected that it would warm up, which it did — some. I arrived at the cycling track next to the police station in Highland Park in Pittsburgh at 8:50 a.m. and immediately registered. It was 28° although it was calm and sunny and seemed warmer.
I went to register and met Danny Chew. He looked at me and said “You look like you’re over 50.” Nice. When I told him I was he responded that they had 12 riders last year over 50 as though 50 was the age of death.
But this clearly is a young man’s race. Or young women as they added a women’s race category as well. And there was a purse — $150 to the winner, $100 for second and $50 for third, at least for the women. I’m not sure if the men had a purse or if it was simply for pride.
At 10:00 a.m. or ten after 10, Danny came out and made announcements. There was no sense of urgency. He introduced some race marshals (riders with orange vests) and gave instructions for crossing the busiest of the highways. Basically, stay together and we can cross against the traffic lights — unless a cop is sitting there. Then we better stop.
Danny would record the top finishers at each hill. If he didn’t call out your name, shout it out for him. They wait for everyone to finish each climb before moving on to the next hill. A no-drop ride. Maybe most important, if you don’t belong at the front don’t go there.
Danny went on and explained how important it was to stay together and how the race was neutralized between the hills. He did say if someone couldn’t keep up maybe this wasn’t the race for them. He left us with this final thought: We can’t wait for anyone who has a flat tire (uh, make that any mechanical) unless they are in the Top Ten. However, if it’s one of the top ten challengers then the race should stop and wait for them.
So they had two sets of rules, one for challengers and one for mortals. Oh, well, it’s Danny’s race and it is for fun. He just lets the rest of us hang on the rear.
Danny had announced a record turnout, more than 140 riders, and I was near the back of them. I wasn’t going to go to the front and challenge for the hill climbs. At each hill the course marshal was to blow a whistle to signify the start of the race up the hill.
We rode neutral across the Allegheny River to Aspinwall and headed up the first hill. I heard the whistle but even then I was in the pack a good three blocks behind the leaders. Even if I wanted to challenge I was so far back that I didn’t have a chance.
We started the climb. I checked the grade and it was 10%, 12%, 15%, then 18%. It kept going and going. It would be a one-mile climb. A few people were out of their homes to cheer us. I imagine they all appreciate the effort to get up that hill. I passed some cyclists dismounting and one who had already turned around and was apparently done for the day.
Already my mind was telling me I hadn’t ridden as much as I should have in the Fall and maybe I should stop. But one forum writer perhaps stated it best by writing that you keep pedaling because everyone else is. In some ways, it is easier in a group because you do feed off each other. I hung in there, kept my pace, and made it to the top. I was probably ahead of 20% of the riders.
We waited at the top until the last riders made it up and then took off to the next climb in Sharpsburg. I never heard a start whistle for the second hill. I was just in a pack which was probably too spread out. This hill too was very long and about as steep. It ended between two cemeteries at the top. Sweet. Again, I was near the back on the climb and I thought at one point that I was the last rider — anyone still behind me had dismounted at this point and was walking.
But it was another 5-10 minutes before we were ready to move on so there may have been some real stragglers. It must be nice for Danny to have started this race 25 years ago and watch it grow but watching it grow also presented some organizing dilemmas including whether they want to include everyone or just elite hill climbers.
We took off again and rode perhaps three miles before a nice descent. Here I let it out and was passing a number of people on the descent. It was a technical descent with a few curves and many were uncomfortable letting it roll that fast. I looked down and saw that I was going 41 mph and then I looked up. Oh crap! In about 25 meters we were crossing Sharpsburg road, blowing through a stop sign (road protected by riders/marshals), and immediately climbing a steep hill.
I can downshift the rear derailleur while climbing but it’s not so easy on the front derailleur because that requires letting up a bit on the pedals. I immediately downshifted the front ring to start climbing but don’t know what happened next. I hit the hill about the same time a guy in front of me was bailing out and falling. I went about 25 meters and had no power. My rear gears hadn’t changed. I hoped to be able to unclip before I fell and I was successful. I dismounted.
I looked at the rear derailleur and it looked like it was bent backwards. I wasn’t sure what happened but lifted the bike and tried to change the gears manually. I even grabbed the chain and moved it to a bigger sprocket. It went back to the low gear — my 12 tooth small gear (hardest to pedal — damn hard to pedal).
The hill was steep but not that long and I decided I would walk the bike to the top. I reached the top and hoped that someone would see me messing with the gears, and perhaps they did, but no one offered to help and I didn’t ask for any. Whatever was wrong, I couldn’t fix. I was stuck in the 12 tooth gear.
As we rolled out I started last as we moved to Hill #4. Even on the slightest grades and I had to stand to pedal, not having any of my easier gears to pedal. Still, I caught some poor schmoe who appeared to be the only person in the race with more than 10% body fat. He was struggling.
At an intersection protected by an unofficial marshal I explained to him my derailleur was stuck. He said “we” (which I hoped meant “he”) could look at it before the next hill and then encouraged us to pick up the pace. He took off and I followed, leaving behind the solo rider.
We (meaning the marshal and me but not the other rider) caught the peloton in Etna in time for Hill #4. I went one block then turned around to remind the marshal of his promise. A photographer was there and he looked and said simply the cable had slipped. But when he went to pull slack from the cable to tighten it up, the entire cable came through the housing. The cable was sheered off. There was no way to switch gears. I was toast.
As the group was already climbing on the hill I had a matter of a few seconds I had to decide to continue or abandon. Keeping with the group in the neutral sections would be no problem but clearly I couldn’t do the hill climbs, which was, after all, the purpose of the Dirty Dozen. I even thought about walking the climbs just to complete the course.
But I realized my day was done. If I was a professional this type of “mechanical” (failure) would be no problem. The team car would be behind me and simply hand me a new bike and I would keep riding. But at the recreational level, a mechanical will end your day and it ended mine.
I was probably no more than three miles from the start although we had ridden 15 at that point. I found the 62nd Street Bridge and crossed the Allegheny River and followed signs back to the cycling track where I was parked.
I arrived and rode on the cycling track just to let out some frustration. It was a nice day, high 30s and sunny so I thought I would ride something different.
As I was leaving I saw two other riders coming back in. They explained that the one rider had flatted (a blowout which we all thought was a gun shot) and by the time it was fixed they couldn’t catch the group. And they didn’t know the route. But they were trying to catch their bearings and go backwards and catch the group later.
I had no such option. Forward or backward, I couldn’t ride the course. My Dirty Dozen turned into a Disappointing Dozen. Of three (hills).
I was disappointed but I can ride the course anytime I want, as long as I am willing to drive to Pittsburgh. It was fun, I hope to do it again and make it without any mechanical problems.
If You Go:
- Don’t expect to find this race well publicized. Plan on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving but do an Internet search a few weeks prior to try and confirm.
- Maybe the best source are the forums at Bike-Pgh.org
- The starting location 1401 Washington Blvd., Pittsburgh PA
- Washington Blvd is also known as the Blue Belt and is also Pa. Rte 8
- The Washington Blvd Cycling Track is a former Pennsylvania State Police Driver’s License course
My disappointment with not being able to finish because of a broken derailleur cable became real only when I went to Chris Popovic’s Picasa site and viewed more than 500 photos of the event. I really wanted to complete what I started and will have to do it solo or make plans for 2009. The picture of me walking and the photo of Canton Ave. are from his photos.