Friday after thanksgiving I packed up my bike, my bags of cycling junk and headed to a friend’s place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This wasn’t my first experience with the Dirty Dozen so I was fairly calm and confident this go around. I arrived at my friend Jared’s place around 5 p.m. and Ashley recommended Fiore’s pizza as the choice fuel the night before the race.
The pizza shop was extremely busy that night, by the time we managed to put our order in I was beyond hungry. Naturally, three grown adults ordered two large pizzas to calm our angry stomachs. If you haven’t had their pizza then you would never know that with each slice of ZA comes 5 lbs of cheesy goodness.
After about five heaping slices and a 2XIPA from Southern Tier we headed back to the apartment to get our gear sorted out for the morning and to process all the grease and cheese.
The morning came quickly, I woke up around 6 am( my usual) and drank a cup of room temperature coffee to get my head into the game. I slept really well that night so I was excited and ready to get down to registration. Jared cooked up some fried egg burritos which really hit the spot.
Last year the temperature hovered around the mid 30’s so I packed accordingly. This year was totally different and by 7 a.m. the temperature was 49 degrees. I kept debating on how many layers I was going to wear. During the climbs my body temp would be higher but on the descents and waiting between hills, the wind would chill you down quickly. I finally decided I would wear a mid-weight base layer and a short sleeve jersey, also I wore thermal cycling tights. (I can’t remember if I saw anyone wearing bib shorts or not). For gloves I wore my blaze orange from Handup Gloves, this isn’t really a marketing plug, but I have owned them for over a year and I am downright amazed at their durability.
By thirty past 7 we were fed, the car was packed and the bikes were ready to roll.
One of the questions I get asked the most is, “What bike should I ride for the Dirty Dozen?” To be completely honest depending on your riding ability, a mountain bike or commuter bike with sufficient gearing ratio would fit the bill. The key though is to make sure your bike is in good mechanical order beforehand. My friend Jared rode a early 90’s Cannondale CAAD road frame with Zipp race wheels on Chris King hubs. Last year I rode a Diamondback cyclocross but this year I was on a Giant Defy advanced road bike with 11-30 cassette.
We got to the Bud Harris cycling track just as other people started to mill into the parking lot from the places they call home. The registration tent was about to open and Danny Chew was talking to a fellow that was going to attempt the race on a unicycle.
If you are not familiar with the Dirty Dozen and the man behind it all I will try to give you the run down in my own words. Danny Chew, his brother and a handful of friends created the race in 1983 in an attempt to find the steepest hills in Pittsburgh and race them by bicycle. Dirty Dozen Wiki The event has grown immensely since then and according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, attendance was over 450 cyclists this year. Unfortunately Danny Chew was in a cycling accident a couple years ago and it left him with a mobility injury. Cyclists from near and far have been coming out to his event to show their support.
After the registration tent was closed down,cyclists were let out at the start line in four waves. The first wave was the competitive racers, the second was club and amateur racers , the third was beginner intermediate ability and the final wave was the party crew!
Last year I was the only individual from my area that attended but this year, several folks from central Pennsylvania took the opportunity.
I was in the second wave and we headed out at 9:15. The first couple hills (Aspinwall and Sharps Hill) were shorter but enough difficulty to open up your lungs to the cold air and knock the winter congestion loose.
With each new hill the body kept telling the mind, “That last hill had to have been the worst.” But in reality every hill killed the legs equally.
Even though the race states that there is a dozen hills there is a fair amount of climbing in between. Below you can see the elevation profile and each peak represents a climb.
It took me a couple climbs to really get warmed up and the muscles limber, My friend’s Jared and Lauren crushed the first couple of climbs with ease. Once we got to Rialto I was feeling pretty strong. Jim Libecco took this footage of the climb at Rialto: Rialto Climb
I think my favorite part about this event is the crowd and the positive energy riding a bicycle can bring to an area. This is especially evident on the infamous hill Canton.
In 2016 as I was waiting to start Rialto, I remember thinking,.. Here we are, people from different vocations, cultures and different societal classes just riding bikes for the fun of it. It is a powerful image and a perfect example that recreation brings communities together.
Throughout the ride I saw a lot of friendly faces and I want to thank each one of you for your positive vibes and cheers.
Canton Avenue is by far the most famous hill of the whole race. According to Wiki, Canton is the steepest officially recorded street in the United States with a grade of 37%
The crowd at Canton is quite the experience. As you make the turn to approach the hill, you can hear a dull roar of applause, music and celebration as people successfully and unsuccessfully summit the cobblestone monster.
The best advice I’ve heard to get up Canton avenue is to push as hard as you possibly can and avoid getting taken out by other cyclists with the same goal in mind.
I mentioned before that there was a uni-cyclist attempting DD, but one of the most notable storied this year was Jeremiah Sullivan’s successful climb of Canton Avenue on a Pittsburgh Healthy Ride bicycle
This was Jeremiah’s 3rd attempt at Canton on a healthy ride and he was successful. I couldn’t imagine pushing a 37 lb bike up that wall. Congrats Jeremiah you deserve the kudos.
There were three food stops along the DD route and they were much needed.
I had begun to cramp in my quads after hill 10 which was Boustead. At the top of Boustead I used my water bottle as a muscle roller hoping that I could work the lactic acid out my muscles. I had been taking electrolytes but for some reason my legs were not thankful for them. Chris Townsley told me that pop tarts were a miracle endurance food, but all I could think about were the jar of dill pickles Mike promised me at the finish line.
At this section in the ride I decided that I really needed to conserve my energy and try not to push so hard that my muscles seize into a major cramp. I knew that the ride was coming to a close and just maybe I could finish without any major problems. Last year I didn’t have this issue, but with the beautiful weather and amplified crowd, I do think I pushed harder on some of the climbs.
At the top Of hill 12 on Eleanor (arguably the worst climb in my opinion), is the final and my favorite food stop. This family (I didn’t get a their name) year after year opens their home up to the cyclists and provides coffee, hot chocolate and water. I think there was also a bowl of candy on the table but at that point I was a little delirious. I combined a cup of hot chocolate with a cup of coffee,added a teaspoon of Morton salt and I was ready to rock the last hill with my friends.
I took hill twelve nice and easy and with some final painful effort managed to finish the race with both legs intact. I remembered the water tank finish from last year and words could not describe the feeling of relief when I reached it and grabbed my finisher ribbon.
This was my second year finishing the Dirty Dozen and I see this experience becoming just as much a tradition in my life as the Thanksgiving feast the days prior.
There were so many personalities and perspectives that day, I’m sure everyone walked away with a different sense of accomplishment. For me the event is somewhat symbolic. Sure, I finished the ride and climbed those hills with my own strength and willpower, but the encouragement of my friends that were alongside me and the friends cheering me on as spectators are what gave me the motivation to see it through.
If you are considering doing the Dirty Dozen I encourage you to give it a shot, you never know what your capable of until you try.