Cyclists in Pittsburgh have been obeying a bizarre tradition for the past twenty-five years, in the typically frigid post-thanksgiving weekend weather, theyíve descended on the Washington blvd. cycling oval with the express purpose of riding to and then racing up the thirteen steepest hills around the city, the queen of which, Canton ave. measures an absurd 37% grade; making it, arguably, the steepest paved grade in the world. Itís also cobbled and appears like a brick wall with a street sign garnishing it, begging the question: are you fucking kidding me? Twelve more of such treats lie in wait. The ride is led, yearly, by one of its founding fathers Danny Chew. Chew rides a lot, so much so that, mid-ride, he announced the completion of his millionth kilometer. Which, so he says, is equivalent to twenty five times around the circumference of the Earth. He still has fifteen more, of such circumnavigations before making his lifetime goal of one million miles! (place pinky in corner of mouth now) but that is another story. Needless to say there is no license, no insurance and the only support given typically consists of Little Debbie Oatmeal pies, coke and various neon green beverages. Of course there is no sponsorship, no cause, and no prizes; just pain, lots of it. In spite of these facts, over 395 people have challenged the Dirty Dozen in the past twenty-five years, spurred on in search of pain, personal glory and big time bragging rights. Not to be out-done, I contested the Dirty Dozen for my third time maybe seeking some glory of my own, but wound up as I do every year, fighting just to survive.
This yearís ride featured 131 people a record turnout, even more than last year which featured unseasonably warm conditions, not so this morning with temperatures below freezing with bone-chilling moisture. The caravan rolled out shortly after ten am in search of the first hill, Center ave., which shoots up and out of the town of Aspinwall , from under an over pass. Being somewhat fresh and having some fore-knowledge of the kick-off. (Danny ceremoniously blows his whistle at the base of each hill announcing the sprint.) I found some position in the lead group and struck the hill with gusto, motoring up the grade at a high cadence on the way to an apparent tenth place and my only point. (Danny rescinded the point in an email after review of the tape showed me in eleventh! Damn, whatís cycling without a technicality! ) Lungs burning from the sudden inhalation of so much freezing air, I began to doubt my ability to score any more points. After a somewhat leisurely paced ride to the next hill, I felt my lungs recovering as we began our next climb, Ravine st. Long, yet not too hard, Ravine crested, like many local hills, at a graveyard. The next climb, Berry hill, takes most contestants by surprise, after a steep decent the ride makes a sharp turn into a paved wall, catching many still in their high gears where they flounder and topple over. High st. in Etna was steep but not memorable.
Logan street winding out of Millvale from behind Mr. Smallís theater, (once church, and now home to an indie-rock resurgence) goes from steep to ridiculous in a series of switchbacks finally straightening out into a paved cliff this time featuring a bottleneck caused by some ďfriendsĒ shooting video and an oncoming station wagon. Riders had to thread this, shoulder width, needle at next to no speed without losing balance, a ďfoot-downĒ negating their climb. I was able to navigate by leaning against and then pushing off the video car and somehow regaining my balance. Suffice to say no points for me or anyone else caught behind the traffic-snarl. Iíve been told Pig Hill got its namesake in that it was used to run pigs to slaughter back when there was a rendering facility at the bottom. Itís been an incline, now just a road, but the slaughter continues! All 131 riders took turns descending the hill and racing back in heats of about twelve at a time, making this the most fun for spectators yet worst for those seeking points as only the top twelve in standings got to contest it. Suffolk street in the north side of Pittsburgh is nightmarish and arguably the toughest of the bunch. It secretly lies dormant from under a highway and whips around a curve into an exponential grade like a concrete wave dwarfing all comers. If you can surmount this a longer slog awaits and once youíre about to ďblow your loadĒ (as itís been described by four time champ, Steve Cummings) it turns to a stack of cobbles. Yuck.
At this point my lungs hurt, my legs hurt and my malformed cyclist arms are buckling under my own weight. They typically donít lift more than twelve ounces at a time. The ride then dipped back down to sea level to head through the city, though not without a casualty, as one riderís failing brakes sent him into a guard rail in a failed evasive maneuver. Once reconnoitered, the ride swept through bustling (sike!) downtown Pittsburgh , the old messenger hunting-grounds, is typically deserted on weekends. The ride crosses over into the southside, around station square once rail hub, now site of hooters, ironic country-western themed bars and many a girl gone wild. Check please. Soon thereafter comes the climb up historic Sycamore ave., featured in the now defunct Thrift Drug Classic, where Lance Armstrong dominated. This time there was more than one nut contesting the climb. Sycamore is long and tough but remarkably tame, doesnít mean I had anything on it, as I watched the leaders float off into the distance. The ride takes itís traditional group picture on Mt. Washington , on a straining, yet well constucted, over-look before departing for real hell in the neighborhood of Beechview.
The ride takes an undulating and exhausting downhill-uphill route to Beechview where the group must confront Canton ave. the steepest street in the world and one to brag to your family, friends and mail personnel about. But, as Chew himself warns: ďthe hill must be respected!Ē at the whistle-blow the lead bunch sprints around the corner and attacks the hill yet most are mercilessly shot down as they are shouldered into wet leaves and ruts. Riders go down like dominoes and nearly roll back down the hill. Those who make it to the top are jubilant as the survivors regroup, march back down the stairs (thatís a sidewalk out here.) and attack the hill again untill, as tradition dictates, they make it. With a hundred and thirty riders this can take a while and the victorious stand upon the peak to cheer on their compatriots. I made it in two tries, a personal best. The next hill Boustead is a complete brute, which falls in rapid succession after Canton . Itís nearly as steep and twice as long pulverizing my already exhausted frame. With hills this steep, you need to bench press your front wheel into the road to avoid wheelie-ing, which takes a huge toll on the arms and shoulders. Once on top the group avails itself to sugar wafers and mountain dews and many take a ritual piss in a lawn beside the road. The ride takes a turn for anarchy as exhaustion and caffeine dissolve concerns for propreity. This is the Dirty Dozen!
The cerimonial jet through the Liberty Tubes, a rite of passage for local messengers, is a highlight for many Pittsburgh cyclists who would never consider riding it alone, being highly dangerous and illegal, níat. Cross racer, Barbara Howe, best described it as like being a speck of dirt sucked through the hose of a giant vaccum cleaner. Too true. The haul up kinda-steep Welsch way in the south side is a break in comparison to neighboring Eleanor street , behind the former HQ of defunct triangle messenger now an arcade. Barry-Holt-Eleanor is actually three streets with traffic changing directions twice, too steep and long for motor vehicle traffic. Naturally, we ride the length of it which goes from steep, into a false flat to mega steep, at which point the sidewalk abruptly turns to stairs looking more like an MC Escher illustration than rideable terrain. Bemused yinzers cheer or jeer at us but Iím too focused on humping my bike over the hill to hear a thing. Cresting the hill, my heart is playing a blast-beat and my lungs are on overdrive. Iím uncontrollably whooping. After a short break the ride turns into a high speed pace-line along a busy road, across the river and back around to the Hazelwood neighborhood where it whips into the final climb; a long slog for several blocks up Flowers ave. and then over the last wall of Tesla street, a fittingly impossible finish to an impossible ride. With the finish in sight, exhausted riders charge or crawl up the final hump gasping and drooling as they crest the last hill. The survivors drop on the lawn at the top panting and coughing waiting for all the riders to finish. Once assembled the officials quickly tabulate points and hold a slip-shod ceremony to announce the winner and top-ten finishers. Everyone then quickly packs up and leaves thinking fuck it, Iím cold letís go home! Cheers to this yearís winner Steve Cummings and all top ten placers!!