Pittsburgh cyclists tackle the city's toughest hills

By Karen Price
Friday, November 23, 2007

Danny Chew's idea of fun isn't the same as most peoples'.

For instance, most people wouldn't consider walking up Canton Avenue in Beechview fun.

Pittsburgh's steepest road is only one-tenth of a mile long, but its 37 percent grade means that for every 100 feet there is a 37-foot elevation gain.

It is also cobblestone.

Chew, 45, thinks it's fun to ride his bike up Canton Avenue.

On Saturday, Chew and other like-minded -- some might say masochistic -- cyclists will race up not just Canton Avenue but 13 of Pittsburgh's steepest hills in the annual Dirty Dozen bike race.

"That's a fun hill," Chew, 45, said of Canton Avenue. "People who make it stand at the top and cheer for the people that are trying to make it. It's quite a spectacle on that hill."

This year is the 25th anniversary of the race, which will begin at 10 a.m. at the Washington Boulevard bike oval.

The first Dirty Dozen was in 1983 after Chew, his brother Tom and their friend Bob Gottlieb decided to design a race showcasing the city's steepest hills. Using topographic maps, they scouted the Pittsburgh streets until they found 13 mini-mountains guaranteed to burn both lungs and limbs.

Five people participated in the first race, and only the three founders finished.

Last year, Chew said the race had its biggest turnout ever, with 125 riders, including 79 rookies.

Chew believes about 90-100 racers finished the 50-mile course, on which there is no racing between hills, only up. The race takes roughly six hours to complete.

Of the finishers, Chew believes only 75 or so made it up every hill, and only 16 scored points, which are earned by finishing in the top five on each hill. A perfect score is 65 points.

Mike Stubna, 31, finished second last year with 38 points, one fewer than three-time defending champion Steve Cummings.

"Some people are happy just to finish," Stubna said of the race. "I'd like to go for the overall win. If you want to do that you have to be able to consistently score points. It's so competitive that you have to be able to score in the top five on every hill."

Stubna, who grew up in Carnegie, recently moved to Philadelphia and urged friends there to start a similar race.

The first annual Philadelphia Dirty Dozen, a 40-mile, 13-hill race, was held on Nov. 3. The final hill was the famous Manayunk Wall, but Stubna, who won the race, said that even that isn't as difficult as the toughest hills in Pittsburgh's Dirty Dozen.

"Pittsburgh definitely has some harder hills than The Wall," Stubna said.

Chew said there's no such thing as a hill too steep to ride.

The lifetime cyclist has crossed the country eight times on his bike, winning the Race Across America twice and never finishing lower than fourth. He once rode to Iowa in four days, competed in and won a 24-hour race, then rode back to Pittsburgh.

His goal is to ride 1 million miles in his lifetime.

He's just 300 miles short of hitting his 1 millionth kilometer, and figures he should reach 1 million miles at the age of 70.

Chew's best advice to Dirty Dozen rookies is to pace oneself.

That, and to spread out on Canton Avenue in the very likely event of a crash.

"That hill gets about half the people the first time up," Chew said. "People don't take it seriously enough. Once they crash or don't make it once or twice, then they take it more seriously. But some people try three and four times and don't make it and give up. The hill just defeats them."

Karen Price can be reached at kprice@tribweb.com or 412-320-7980.