December 9, 2007

Things to do in Pittsburgh when it's cold

(Click for larger image)

Barb Howe smiles - or is that a grimace?
Photo : Center Avenue Imaging

What does one do in between races while visiting family? I like to bake pies, sleep and ride my bike. The week between USGP rounds three and four and Thanksgiving I got to spend with my family in Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania] doing just that.

The first few days the weather was unseasonably warm and rode in just shorts and a jersey, unheard of in November in Pittsburgh. By Thanksgiving the weather had turned into the weather I know and love: cold and raining. Friday it was even colder and I had plans to ride the Critical Mass in Pittsburgh. I've never done one before, even though there are two near where I live. Usually by Friday evening I'm either tired or getting ready to race the next day. Since I had neither excuse while in Pittsburgh I made a plan with my brother to do the ride. Friday was quite cold, but dry. As the evening time drew near I rode over to my bother's house dressed in most of my warm clothes. His house is a downhill coast from my parents' house and I was freezing by the time I got there. So I borrowed an extra coat from him. Right before we were about to leave someone showed up to look at a truck he had posted on Craig's List so I headed off on my own.

(Click for larger image)

The last hill
Photo : Center Avenue Imaging

It was dark by the time I headed out and snow flurries were starting to fall. It's been a long time since I've ridden in the snow. The temperature was low enough that the roads stayed dry and there was very little traffic on the roads. Upon arrival at the appointed meeting place, a life size diplodocus statue in front of the Carnegie Museum, I was disappointed to find no one there. The night was critical but no mass. Maybe the masses showed up after I left, but considering the temperature, I wasn't really interested in waiting too long to find out. So I rode back to my brother's house and then up a large (but not too steep) hill to my sister's house and enjoyed some hot lasagna. Riding around in the dark with snow flurries caressing my cheeks drew me into a Zen-like daze. The streets were all but deserted and for a moment it felt like I had the city all to myself.

The Dirty Dozen here's how it is

(Click for larger image)

There was a lot of suffering
Photo : Center Avenue Imaging

Saturday morning is the start of the big day I've been looking forward to for months, The Dirty Dozen. A true Pittsburgh classic, the Dirty Dozen celebrated its twenty fifth year on the Saturday, November 24, 2007. What is the Dirty Dozen? A ride that goes up the thirteen steepest hills in Pittsburgh with points awarded to the top ten finishers on each hill. It was started by two-time RAAM winner and endurance cyclist Danny Chew, and you can find out more about it here The winner walks away with huge prize money, podium girls and ever-lasting fame. Well, not really, but the winner does get some serious bragging rights.

The thermometer read a brisk 23F when I woke up, it was going to be a chilly one. By the time I left to roll down the hill to the Pseudodrome, the temperature was up to 27F...balmy. The ride costs US$5, and this helps cover the costs of support vehicles. A record 129 people show up to start the ride, and three of us are women. The fine cyclists of Pittsburgh are very friendly folks and it isn't long before I have people to chat. I'm sure many of them wonder what the heck I'm doing in Pittsburgh when I could be in warm, sunny California. Simple, I'm here to visit my family and ride stupidly steep hills.

The first hill comes just a few miles into the ride after crossing one of the Highland Park Bridges - a large two-lanes-in-each-direction kind of bridge. (The ride feels like a Critical Mass, there are enough of us that we can more or less do what we deem necessary traffic-wise, luckily there is very little traffic today.) Being a rookie I have no idea where any of the hills start or finish, making my chances of getting any points slim to none. I hear a whistle go off and everyone speeds up. The first hill is a burner, we have spectators at the bottom holding inspirational signs and my legs propel the bike up the grade in a light springy fashion. One might say I was dancing on the pedals. At the top, it is time to wait for everyone to finish and regroup we journey onward to the next hill.

(Click for larger image)

Pained face
Photo : Center Avenue Imaging

Hill number two isn't so bad and once again my legs dance their way up the hill. Hill number three has a ripping descent leading into it. I'm warned by some DD veterans that you have to be ready for the hill and shift into the little ring before starting up. Being on my 'cross bike and having canti brakes my unsuperior braking power makes itself known on the descent. Screaming past several riders, I carry plenty of speed into the hill and just miss out on points.

From there, we head over to the second steepest hill, Rialto St. This one is special because we start at the top, the top points leaders go to the bottom and race, then everyone else goes down to give it a shot. Although the hill is steep, it isn't very long. My rating: a decent lung burn but not too heavy on the upper body. Carol, one of the other ladies, and I raced up the hill together. She is an endurance mountain bike racer for Dirt Rag and is also on a 'cross bike. Between Rialto and Suffolk/Hazelton, the one and only object thrown at me for the day just barely misses my front wheel. I think it is a rotten apple thrown by a punk-ass kid with poor aim.

To get from the North Side of Pittsburgh to the South Side, we ride straight through downtown across another large bridge that conveniently for us is closed as part of a parade route. Sycamore Street, famous for it's part in the now-defunct Thrift Drug Classic, is one of the gentler hills of the ride. Lance Armstrong won the race a few times before he became a stage racer; I imagine fourteen trips up Sycamore could take its toll on a person.

(Click for larger image)

Canton Ave was the the steepest hill
Photo : Brad from Urban Velo

Sycamore Street puts you on top of Mt Washington and offers one of the best views of the city and the site of the traditional group picture. It is also a feed station and from the back of the support car, came forth several gallons of Gatorade, cases of soda and many, many boxes of Little Debbie snacks. I've been out in the cold for a few hours and need to refuel. Carefully weighing my options I choose what later will be identified as a little Debbie Swiss Cake Roll.

I think it's a Ho Ho I'm eating, but Ho Ho's are made by Tastee Cake and my snack (of dubious digestability and questionable nutritional yield) is definitely a Little Debbie. Another surprise awaits me at the top of the hill. A friend that I've known since toddlerhood and is at the top of the hill with his wife and son. Hi David! He made it to the top just in time to catch everyone fighting their way up Sycamore.

The DD doesn't go around on flat ground between hills, mainly because nothing in Pittsburgh is flat. There are several unrated climbs that I start to think of as extra credit. Descending Mt Washington, we come to the hill I didn't believe existed, Canton Street. Weighing in at a burly 37% and covered with cobbles it's been voted the steepest street in the world. The key to this hill is to get a clear shot because when someone tips over in front of you your time is up. You have to detangle, walk to the staircase on the side, go back to the bottom and try again. I make it on my second try amid loud cheers from a growing crowd of spectators.

Two hills later, I don't show the proper respect for the hill and receive due punishment. The hill kicks up and disappears around a corner, legs screaming head pounding arms at near failure I want to stop. My ego prevents this, but I have learned and will be more respectful of the last few hills. By the tenth hill, my legs no longer dance, they stumble and balk, my arms ache and threaten to cramp and I begin to doubt the sensibility of this ride.

(Click for larger image)

This hill was so steep
Photo : Brad from Urban Velo

Approaching the last two hills, the temperature drops further, it never got too far above freezing the entire day, and as sun approaches the horizon a deeper chill creeps in. The road section between hills twelve and thirteen isn't completely neutral, there is the Liberty Tubes Sprint to contend. The Liberty Tubes are a set of tunnels that I have of course only driven through. Riding through them (expressly prohibited, so said a large sign) is a blast, I feel like a speck of dirt hurtling through a vacuum hose.

I am under-geared as part of the group pulls away the 46-tooth chain ring isn't enough. The final hill is a doozey, by this point my legs hurt, we have been out for more than five hours, the sun is about to set, a large hot meal sounds delightful and I have no idea where I am. The last hill starts with a seated climbing segment, I'm thinking this isn't so bad after all. Then I see the steep part, it rises from a false flat like smoke from a forest fire; beautiful, mesmerizing, ruthless on the lungs. My arms quiver, my stomach feels queasy. This is the last one, I will my legs onward and upward. Nearing the top a sense of peace overtakes my body my legs once again begin to dance and I float past a struggling fellow cyclist.

At the top there is food, drink and general merriment. An air of contagious jubilation spreads amongst the finishers. I have finished the ride in good style. My name will go down in the annals of history as a Dirty Dozen finisher. The top ten riders are announced and applauded, I don my second jacket as the temperature seems to have dropped further. The ride back to the Pseudodrome is fast, the algid air penetrates both jacket and chills my core. No one wants to linger with the end so near. As the blue hour envelopes the city I finally reach the Pseudodrome - cold, tired and hungry.

It's time for warm clothes, hot food and a restful night's sleep. I'd like to thank Bella Barb who let me use her wheels for the ride (they were great), Chris for driving me back up the hill at the end of the ride, the volunteers who spent the entire day driving around with us and the planners of Pittsburgh for building roads on so many steep hills.



For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Center Avenue Imaging /

Images by Urban Velo/