Dirty Dozen 2016 – Or “You Can’t Put a Road Up That!”
January 3, 2017 § Leave a comment
A Pittsburgh native and his brother first came up with the idea for a ride/race around Pittsburgh’s many varied neighborhoods that included climbing the steepest grades that road engineers felt could be paved and still be called a road, AND people would still build their homes there. While it may not have been a named ride then, it wasn’t long before the ride achieved local legend status, and became known as “The Dirty Dozen”. Why it isn’t a “Baker’s Dozen” makes no sense since there are thirteen competition hills in the ride, but I think “Dirty” sounds meaner and tougher than “Baker” (Think Charles Bronson vs. Nicholas Cage).
Technically, it is an unorganized organized ride that has the support of the locals, but doesn’t secure permits for the event in any of the communities it rides through. While we sign “Waivers”, I am not sure really what legally murky waters they tread, but we are all riding the same route, in the same direction, and we race each other up the designated climbs.
Danny Chew and his brother were the authors of the ride, being local residents, and being proud local residents. They felt that Pittsburgh could offer one of the nastiest hill climb rides of anywhere in the lower 48, and density wise, perhaps only San Francisco and some of it’s southern neighboring towns could compete. Danny was (and is) the main energy behind the ride, and he would have ridden this years event had he not had a paralyzing accident this past summer while assisting a handicapped rider in a cycling accomplishment of her own. He is going through physical therapy in Chicago, and was hooked up live streaming to this years event to provide the opening words and to talk to the individual winners at the top of each climb, or for that matter, anyone he wanted to talk to, or wanted to simply say “Hi!”.
In years past the event was always run as a single ride, and as was customary, placings were hashed out and confirmed at the top of each climb as the “pack” waited for every rider to achieve the summit. Once rested, it would be an easy peasy pace to the base of the next climb while giving up all the stored up potential energy that each rider so non-effortlessly put into themselves and their bikes. No racing downhill!! It’s late November, and there are still wet leaves around, and with the threatening skies, roads can be slick, so safety first!
This year however, the ride was broken up into 3 or four waves, with the first wave being the strongest and those vying for points. I was going to ride the second wave, but then I figured I was strong enough for the first wave, and since I had plans to meet an old friend afterwards, finishing as early as possible was in order. I was not disappointed, nor was I the weakest, but I was one of the oldest in the first group. There were some skinny young, and skinny not so young, and then some normal racers. Also we had all the strong women who were competing for their own points.
In this group I counted two people on single speeds, which was basically their climbing gear, and they only had to spin fast enough on the flats between the climbs. There was a woman riding a Fat Tire bike, and she rode that bike well and strong. I asked her if she rode a road bike as well, because I thought she probably kicked a lot of ass, but no, she only rode this bike. 99% of the first group was riding traditional racing frames, mostly with two front chain rings, though I did spot a few triples. I would say a 32″ gear (34×28) is sufficient for this ride, though I only had a 36″ (34×25). It also depends on your weight too. If I was 20 lbs. lighter then my 36″ would have been fine, but that 20 pounds makes a huge difference.
Though I have been to Pittsburgh many times in the last 40 years, with in-laws Northwest in Beaver County, I hadn’t heard of this ride until a 2011 documentary made the rounds on Social Media a few years back, and then The Dirty Dozen was on my radar. When my wife asked me if we could go to Beaver for Thanksgiving to look in on her parents, I was immediately “IN”, and registered the next day to ride my first Dirty Dozen. All I had to do was somehow train for the steepest, gnarliest, rudest, meanest, baby-seal clubbing climbs while living in the flat lands of Coastal New Jersey. Fortunately we have Highlands, and Atlantic Highlands, and Middletown has some hills, but really, while those hills are steep in places, there is nothing in Monmouth County which has the grade AND the length of these monsters in Pittsburgh. Really, there is no sane reason for putting roads up grades that steep. You can’t plow these roads in the winter, and you certainly don’t want to be on them when they are slick or slippery. I do think that many of them are closed at some point for the Winter, and in fact hill #3 had to be re-routed because early snow led that community to close it. Pittsburgh however has many many roads that would love to be a Dirty Dozen Hill, and so an able substitute was found.
Bringing the whole event together this year required huge efforts from some devoted friends and volunteers. Danny supported the running of the event, and was adamant that the ride should continue. His only compromise was finally relenting and letting the event be broken up into waves. With such a large single group the tops of some of the climbs was just too small to accommodate that many people, and the amount of time the first riders up had to wait meant that they were quite cooled down by the time the descent was started. We all gathered at the Bud Harris Cycling Track in Highland Park, where they had managed to get a large screen display streaming Danny from his therapy room in Chicago. He had some kind words for all the volunteer staff, and then some inspirational words for the riders, and then finally some words of wisdom. “Be careful out there. I wouldn’t want to see any of you end up injured like I am.” By 9:10 in the am, the first wave was off.
The first climb is Center Ave./Guyasuta Rd. in Aspinwall, and is a real “wake-up call” to the legs and lungs. Whatever I tried to imagine these hills to be, I wasn’t even close to imagining the grade and the length of them. After the first one, I couldn’t believe I still had 12 more to do! All the multi-timers said, “The first one is like ice water in your face!”, then you get to settle in for just some good-ole plain baby seal clubbing suffering.
Any thought that maybe the first one was one of the “toughest” and some of the others wouldn’t “be so bad” was quickly erased on the second climb up Ravine St./Midway Dr. in Sharpsburg. While the first climb was a combo climb, at least on that one you could see the second climb from the first, but this second climb seemed to have a false finish where the mind begins to relent, only to see the riders in front of you making a turn and then you see the rest of them on an incline that seems truly insane.
The sounds on the climbs are another treat of this ride. Besides the creaking of high-end components on bicycles, there is the “struggle for air”, and the verbal commentary from those riders who have enough energy to emit “Oh Gods” and “Holy Shits”, and then there is clatter of cow bells, and the cheering from the crowds on the sides of the hills screaming support at you. The entertainment value of propelling the riders with audio support keeps the fans coming out every year to support the event. It is just as much an event for them as it is for the riders themselves. Many people drive from climb to climb to cheer from multiple locations.
With the traditional hill #3 closed, the route crossed over the Allegheny and took in the climb of Stanton in Lawrenceville. As already stated, because this was a substitute did not mean we had any kind of an easy climb. This was still a climb that required out-of-the-saddle stomping the pedals with saddle-based grinding during “recovery” if you could call it that. I knew by this time, that my 34×25 was insufficient, and to make matters worse, my chainrings are oval, so I think the effective size is actually 36×25 in the power stroke, and that my friends, is not enough for a 57 year old geezer like me to tackle these climbs all day. At least not without a lot of effort.
Like an open wound with with a small amount of ascorbic acid added, hill four began on High St. as a straight in lead to slaughter. Going in you knew the club was coming. What wasn’t apparent as at the top of High St. a right is made onto a ledge, and then the real clubbing awaits you when you turn left onto Seavey Road. This is really the first indication that Danny and his “mates” are truly masochists beneath their skin. “How can we enjoy true suffering year in and year out here in the hometown of Andy Warhol? Let’s make a ride for the ages that baby seals for miles around will come to each year to be clubbed. It’ll be EPIC!”. Seavey, doesn’t relent until it has clubbed the last ounce of hope from your day. At this point, as a newbie, you are thinking “Technically, the start isn’t all that far away, and I could simply make a left when everyone makes a right, and silently flip my middle finger of fate to the Dirty Dozen and go back to my in-laws, and take my Father-in-law to Zooky’s out on 51!”. But then the legs recover, and somehow, when the legs clear of Lactic Acid, the brain clears of suffer memory, and suddenly “I think I am good for the next climb!”
In this case that next climb is the f’n Logan St. in Millvale, and NOTHING prepares you for the 100 pound hammer that is going to fall into your lap. To the reader, as an experiment, go find something that weighs 5 pounds. Then ask yourself, “Would I strap this onto my bike, and then ride up a 30 fucking percent incline? An incline that lasts 300 yards?” How about 10 pounds? 20? Going into Logan on Maryland, you really have no idea about the beating you are about to get. You can hear the noise that is coming, and again, as a newbie, you get sucked into the thought of “Wow, what a great ride!”. The closer I got to the hard right turn, the more it sounded like a fucking locomotive was about to run me down, and sure enough, that is exactly what hits you as you climb. You hit the hard acute angle start, and there is already a crowd at the bottom, feeding off the flesh of the weak who already succumbed. The voraciousness of those fans is “Walking Dead” intense. Personally I found myself in a group on this climb. A narrow road, where it was difficult to look ahead and see that you were really going over the falls. The grade was steep, and there are bikes around you, and to keep moving forward at a pace that doesn’t put you into the riders around you is a challenge, and then much more because you can’t look ahead and plan. Yet the unrelenting grade just keeps waterboarding you into a state of utter holy-fuckedness. After surviving Logan, I felt like I could survive anything. At least, those in the know, had the fucking decency to declare to us newbies, “Yes, that is one of the worst, and though the rest are hard, and Canton is REALLY hard, this was in fact the worst of them all.” That gave many of us hope, and if it hadn’t been for the food stop after this climb, I myself, probably would have pulled my tail between my legs, and drawn my scrotum up and into whatever void cavity I could find, and high-tailed it out of there.
After the food stop, in which I stuffed two Little Debbies Oatmeal Cream Pies, two Red Bull Energy Drinks, a banana, and a bottle of Gatorade into my system, we found ourselves high upon a bluff at the top of Rialto. Up until this point, we started climbs at the bottom, and afterwards took a much less kinetic energy conversion route back to river level, however this time, because the bottom of Rialto is Route 28, that wasn’t possible, so this climb can only be done in smaller groups who first descend this monster, and then loopback at the bottom and climb. The saving grace, is that it isn’t that long, but it is steep as hell, and it is loaded with fans. Though I was in the front group I wasn’t competing for points, so I went in the second wave on the hill. If you think going up these steep suicide hills is crazy, try riding down them. Try riding down them as a 6’4″ dude high on a saddle! I got myself as low in the saddle as I could go, and rode that downhill with both the front and rear brakes clamped tightly to arrest as much forward progress, as the laws of physics would allow. I hadn’t down-shifted when I started, so that meant I had to waste precious real-estate at the bottom shifting, and couldn’t get any momentum built up for the climb, and so I simply grinded my way back to the top. At least it was a short climb!
Five down and still 8 to go and all the newbies in the group keep asking the veterans about #9 Canton Ave. and how it compares to the last hill. That is the hill video that floats to the top of every video search for “Dirty Dozen Ride Pittsburgh”. It’s the one we shared with our friends only to receive feedback that we were “Crazy” for even considering this ride. Didn’t I know it was the “Off-Season”? Why did I want to suffer so badly? Truth is, I think everyone of them would have ridden it with me if they could have gotten themselves to Pittsburgh!
The climb up Suffolk/Hazelton/Burgess Streets can only be done by first riding North alongside Route 279 for a ways to reach the base of Suffolk. You might think that since you are gaining elevation riding away from the Allegheny River, and therefore the next climb might not be so bad, because, the total delta between the base and the summit is less. If you thought that, then of course you would be WRONG. If the base is higher, then so too might the summit, in fact, the summit could be even higher still, and your suffering lasts longer because it is a longer hill and it matters not what the base elevation is. All three of these sections of the climb lead you to despise the North side of the city.
With the Northside finished, we had two river crossings to handle, the first being the Allegheny, and then finally the Monongahela. Between those two crossings was a small section of downtown in which it was difficult to go very far without hitting another damn long traffic light. We at least “bullied” our way into navigating all changing lights as one large unit, and were for the most part, granted leave to do so, however, if a light we approached was red, then we clipped out and waited. Pittsburgh traffic signals last a long time. Finally crossing over the Monongahela, we could see the traditional long ramp up to Mount Washington. That however wasn’t where we were going, because that ramp was for sissies, and we were real people, and real people ride up to Mount Washington using Sycamore St, which gets to the same elevation in about a third the linear distance, leaving your lungs gasping for energy rich oxygen. This street is a little bit like Alpe D’Huez in France in that it has a couple of minor switchbacks, and it is loaded with fans of the ride.
Turning on Wyoming, you find yourself on cobbles that are mix of solid granite cobbles, and something akin to elderly woman osteoporosis bone cobbles. I suppose they were some kind of metamorphosed sandstone cobble, and were really worn out with giant gaps between some of them. Wyoming was short, though treacherous, and soon we attained Grandview, which contains the best “postcard” views of Pittsburgh anywhere. This is atop the hill in which many ride the “Monongahela Incline” to Mount Washington for this view. This is where my brother-in-law proposed to his wife many many years ago as thousands have done before and since. This is also the location where the entire field stops for a group picture with the Pittsburgh skyline behind us.
We were getting closer to Canton Avenue, the most dreaded and anticipated climb of the whole tour. This is the climb that people come for; It is on each riders mind when they register. Anyone who has ever failed to climb the first, second or Nth time. This is the climb you want to be able to tell everyone, “Yeah, I made that”
I however did not make it! Just didn’t have the right gearing for it, and I was going so slow I was about to fall over when I decided to unclip at the bottom of my current power stroke. It is however a very special climb, because though it is short, it is crowded on both sides with fans, and the base is also crowded. As you approach the climb, you can hear the noise, at least you can if you are as far back as I was, and you don’t get any momentum going into it either. The access road has elevation gain all the way to the base, and you have to be in the right gear when you hit, because once the grade hits 37%, you can’t shift. It would be hard to shift a rear cog, and you certainly can’t shift the front ring. Many people, after failing their first attempt, dismount, descend, remount and retry. I wasn’t going to, and I didn’t do that, and there is no shame in walking to the top pushing your bike. The fans are used to it, and many are simply happy that you tried. Perhaps an old guy like me gets a little more sympathy.
At the top was the second rest stop where all the food/snacks/Red Bull/Gatorade that we didn’t consume at the first stop were awaiting us in a much more compact delivery system of truck beds, and temporary tables. There isn’t a lot of room up there, so as riders come over the top, they run into a mass of riders stuffing their faces with Little Debbies, and Yodels, and Bananas and slurping Red Bull or water or Gatorade or everything! The residents, after years of this activity, have asked to not have cyclists dump their bikes on their property, but that is exactly what they do, because when you are hungry and tired, who the hell is paying attention to the dude with the Megaphone?!?
We left Canton Ave. just as the next group was arriving, and the exit actually loops back across the base, so we were treated to the spectacle of the front riders of the next wave of riders. If I return next year for another round, then I will certainly come prepared to succeed. I have been writing this over the course of 3 weeks following the event, and at this point, my memories of the later climbs is diminishing. For example, I don’t really recall the next two climbs at Boustead St. in Beechview, and Welsh Way on the Southside, however I do recall that we had another long climb, though not steep, as we were routed around the Liberty Tunnel. I was expecting to ride through the tunnel, but I guess that was feature of past rides, and wasn’t in the cards for this edition.
The next to last climb was memorable, as the community opened their center at the top of the hill, and welcomed the riders to warm refreshments. This was after Barry/Holt/Eleanor Streets in the Southside, and the warmth of the reception by the locals was a welcome warmth. It was with regrets that we departed for the last final climb of the 2016 Dirty Dozen ride. To get to the last climb we had to re-cross the Monongahela River for the last time, and follow the river further Southeast past the point at which 476 turns away from the river and heads towards the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. For us, the ride to the base of the climb was nice and flat and easy, and everyone was happy that there was simply just one more set of roads. This was another multi-segment climb using the three Flowers Ave./Kilbourne St./Tesla St in the Hazleton section of the city. The great feature of a multi-segment climb is you can take your time to recover between the segments. The bad thing about multi-segment climbs is that after you have done two segments, there is still one more. On this last segment, even with my recovery, I just couldn’t keep enough forward momentum to finish at the top without unclipping from the pedals.
At the top, the final awards ceremony was held, and though there were some there who were picked up by loved ones, the rest of us still had to ride back to the start, where our cars were. Since I didn’t know the way, I looked for people who did, and it wasn’t long before I was riding again. Awaiting me at my car was an old friend I have known since my Penn State years, and also during most of my AT&T years. I didn’t want to keep Chuck waiting any longer than I had to, and we knocked those miles out pretty quickly. I quickly dressed in normal street clothes, and then we drove up to Oakmont, got some eats at The Rivertowne Inn, and caught up on our lives.
It was a very long day, and the drive back to Brighton Township went uneventfully, and I was happy to get back to my in-laws where I could collapse in a chair, put my feet up, and fill my family in on the events of the day. Will I do the Dirty Dozen 2017? Let’s hope so!!
If interested this is what’s like to be at the front, or at least near it for the first 4 climbs, and the closest I ever got to the front can be seen in the first few minutes of this video with me in my Cycles 54 garb awaiting the send-off!!