Ride Report: 2014 Dirty Dozen Pittsburgh

Unless you live in Pittsburgh there is no way to anticipate what the Dirty Dozen will actually be like.  The ride sniffs out the 13 steepest roads in the Pittsburgh – which by nature makes them 13 of the steepest roads on the continent.    The crown jewel of the ride is Canton Avenue, arguably the steepest road in the world at 37% grade.  Ask anyone who has finished the DD about which climbs were the toughest, though, and they will likely name at least 2 or 3 other hills first.  Organized by “The Million Mile Man” and 2 time RAAM winner Danny Chew, the ride is more than a calculating test of endurance; it’s an intimate experience with the topography, construction, and history of an incredibly rich cultural city.  There’s a human interest story behind each of these quirky roads and the unique lives behind the people that spend their lives on them.  In order to become part of it you must be willing to toil and suffer.  Put in the hard work and you will be welcome without question provided the rugged landscape doesn’t swallow you whole.


I call the Dirty Dozen a ride because for 85% of the 300+ participants this year it was just that.  For a select few, the DD is a points race.  The first 10 finishers on each hill receive points from ten (for 1st place) to one (for 10th) and at the end of the race the rider who has collected the most points wins.  The scoring is irrelevant for most since the points are usually distributed between the same 20-something riders but there are other odd rules that affect everybody, most important being the “forward motion” rule.  Any rider that puts a foot on the ground loses their position and must start riding the hill over again.  From the bottom.  Luckily the race is “neutralized” between the hill climbing efforts, meaning that the leaders wait at least ten minutes at the top of each hill for everyone who can make it to make it.  The group rides at a slow pace between hills that gets gradually slower as the day drags on.


Nick and I drove out to Pittsburgh after deciding less than a week beforehand to do the Dirty Dozen.  Nick brought his Surly Cross Check with single 38 tooth chainring in the front and a 12-32 cassette in the back.  I rode my Scott Addict (repaired by the one and only Aaron Ritz) with a compact crank (50/34) and a 12-27 cassette.  We both set out with the intention of finishing every hill honoring the “no foot down or you start over” rule.  I, fueled with bravado about my climbing abilities and dreaming in carbon fiber, also had a crazy notion about finishing in the top ten on at least one hill.  Since I haven’t found any truly detailed reports about the race and each hill, I decided to write a full report, including as many details and minutiae of the experience as I can muster.  Hopefully it can serve as a guide for anyone who is thinking about doing the race.  Check it out after the jump, hill by hill (with some pictures).

The ride starts in the parking lot of a police station. The ride this year was larger than 320 riders making it the largest Dozen in history.

    1. The race rolls out from the odd Washington Oval cycling track thingy.  First hill is less than ten minutes away over a bridge where you can see at least two of the sheer cliffs we will have to scale.  No time wasted.  Nick and I hang near the middle of the very large pack.  Lots of people attempt to be at the front of the race and try their hands early.  I know the first two climbs are long ones because we had a chance to drive Nick’s Prius up them the day before.  Luckily I don’t struggle as much as the car does.  Although I see later that Center Ave is one of the longer efforts of the day, it goes by quickly as I spend time marvelling at the few crooked houses built on this street and their deteriorating driveways.


    3. I was wondering how seriously the neutralization would be taken before the ride.  The answer: very.  We wait a long time to get everyone together at the top and start rolling to the next hill.  It quickly becomes apparent that there are many more un-rated hills in the ride than the thirteen biggies, since we almost immediately start going up another short rise.  There is a fast downhill, a big hill, and another downhill before I see we are back down at the Allegheny River and it’s time to go up again.  Ravine St is similar to the first hill – long, relatively straight, albeit noticeably steeper at its crux.  A quick left and a curve right bring you to the Sharps Hill section which is a gentle slope to the top.  Casual conversation begins before the official climb is even over when someone recognizes me from a trans-PA ride I did last year.  At the top I run into Gavin from Eastern PA Randonneurs and he talks about his recent riding around Ireland and plans to do Paris-Brest-Paris this year.  It takes at least fifteen minutes before we start again.


    5. Berryhill is reached via a screaming descent.  It’s one of the shorter hills, but is steeper than either of the first two and is your first exposure to some of the poor road surfaces to come.  The black asphalt on top is chipped away leaving an uneven surface with tiny cracks and potholes everywhere.  It seems like winter is harsh on this stretch of tarmac.  Berryhill can be fun if your machine is working well because it’s the only hill you can really carry momentum from the downhill up thanks to the road marshalls blocking traffic at the base.  They allow our large group to blow through the surprise stop sign at the bottom that would surely turn the race into a bodypile otherwise.  In addition to the steep grade and poor road conditions I discover what will become the greatest challenge of all: dealing with other riders.  As the road alters its course from straight down to straight up the sound of frantic shifting echoes throughout the tiny valley.  People keel over immediately as the grade kicks up after dropping chains shifting between rings.  Derailleurs snap, crackle, and pop.  After taking the descent gingerly I find myself behind one of these poor souls stuck in their big ring who swerves across the road and forces me onto the wet leaves, sticks, and dirt on the left.  As my rear wheel keeps spinning in its search for  traction I make a decision to stay clipped in.  Either the rubber bites or I’m going down with the bike.  With some jostling I’m able to make it stick and creep my way back onto the road.  Disaster averted for now. I find Nick at the top and we talk about how good our legs feel to pump ourselves up for the ten hills to come.


    7. High Street and Seavy Street was one of the more fun climbs.  High winds up to the right before switchbacking to the left so much of the climb is visible.  This also made it a great viewing spot and I noticed how large the support crowds were.  The hill is a bit shorter than Center and Ravine and just about the same grade.  High street was covered in all sorts of tiny stones that must roll down from the top of the hill so you have to watch the road. Apparently a garbage truck tried to roll through the course just before the race arrived and was stopped by the crowd.  Unfortunately the truck stopped directly on the switchbacky part and blocked the street to the point that it was one rider at a time – right after one of the steepest, slipperiest sections.  He was yelling all sorts of obscenities as we rode by.  This made for an amusing distraction for me, although I hear there were some logjams a little further back that caused dozens of cyclists to dismount at this point.  From the top of Seavey Danny waved on the finishers since there was a lunch stop before the next climb.  I followed wheels all the way down to the Allegheny where there was a smorgasbord of bananas, oatmeal creme pies, and Uncrustables.  I resolve to stay further towards the front of the race to avoid hairy moments like Berryhill.  I’m passing dozens of people on every hill so I figure I shouldn’t have any problem slowing others down up front, but it’s hard to stay on the pointy end since a) I have no idea where I’m going and b) at least 60 people have the same idea I do.  If you’re not vigilant you can go from 20th position to 60th in less than a minute.

      View from the GAP trail rest stop on the Allegheny River / Impromptu restroom for most of the men

    9. The fifth hill, Logan St, was a blur for me.  I was well positioned in the top 40 or so riders and we were climbing a small connecting hill when the group in front of me split in two directions.  I went the path of least resistance and followed the rider in front of me as he turned left even though the motor bike and leaders went straight.  A bit of yelling ensued and I realized that the leaders missed the turn-off. I saw Steevo (winner of the last ten DDs) sprint past me and towards the next hill, which came off an almost 180 degree turn.  I realized I had good position and started getting twitchy and attacked the bottom of the hill, going from probably 15th to 5th or 6th place on the first third of the hill.  I didn’t know how long or steep the hill was. The road surface was extra poor, full of long, nasty cracks, and it was one of the narrowest streets to this point.  There is no reprieve on Logan; the grade goes something like very steep/very very steep/ultra steep as the grade ratchets relentlessly upwards.  I don’t remember much besides a couple people passing me and then a woman yelling at me for my name.  I didn’t even see the finishing cones.  Apparently I finished in an almost dead tie with another rider for 9th/10th place.

      Points face! Notice the bridge in the background from the previous picture, now seen from above.

    11. I found Nick and Gavin as we rolled down towards the river again and chatted for a while with the dude from Baltimore who was sprinting with me (I forget his name right now).  As we got closer to the next hill he told me we should go to the front since we are points-scorers now.  In my head I said “No thanks, I’m taking the next couple hill off” and stayed back with the Philly-area crew.  In retrospect this was a big mistake.  Rialto is an ultra-narrow street (3 riders abreast) that comes up from a major highway.  The way the hill is attacked is riders descend first then turn around in a small coned-off area at the bottom before heading right back.  The ride is stopped at the top and points scorers go down first, where they do a staged start with one foot on the ground.  By this hill there were less than 20 points scorers so it would have made the ride up much easier.  If you have scored points definitely make sure to do the staged start, even if you’re gassed.  It’s way easier than it will be later.  The women go next and then everybody else.  The problem with being in the mass group is that there is no stop at the bottom, just a tight area to make the 180 degree turn.  Riders descend single file squeezed to the right hand side of the road while people are also riding up on the other side.  This makes its exceptionally hard to pass people.  For me it was a nightmare since I cherish riding at my own pace on these hills.  I was stuck behind two riders side by side churning large, chunky gears compared to mine so I wound up riding until I could touch their wheel then coming to an almost track stand before catching up again, over and over.  Despite this, I found Rialto to be one of the easier hills since it was short, recently paved with fresh, sticky asphalt and was exceptionally smooth and evenly graded (probably right at 25% or so for its entire length).


    13. Part of the reason I wasn’t inclined to find the front for Rialto was that I had heard from numerous sources that the next hill, Suffolk/Hazleton/Burgess, was the toughest of them all. It certainly lived up to its name.  The first section is a wide suburban type road similar to Center and Ravine but much, much steeper for its entire length.  This section is probably close to Logan in length, but the grade never really lets up.  When you look up from the first really steep section you can see the road gently curve to the right up ahead.  By the time you round the curve you will see that the road ends on top of another really steep section.  Your eyes and legs will probably tell you that this is the end, but they are liars.  Once you crest and the road lets up just a little you see the 90 degree left hand turn and realize you still have over a minute left to go up Burgess.  This time on rough cobblestones, uphill.  I was able to do this last section seated to keep traction on the uneven rocks with my 23mm tires and my upper body hated me for it.  Anyone who catches a bad edge on this last tricky section has a long way to go back down.  I caught my breath at the top and decided to try to get a picture of Nick coming up the stones.  After a couple minutes passed and I didn’t see him I started to get worried that he didn’t make it (and that I might have to ride down to find him).  It was a false alarm, though, and I found that he wasn’t too far behind me.  Those 35mm looked awfully nice at that point.  I began to question whether my tiny strip of rubber would be enough to propel me up Canton.

      The last segment on the Suffolk/Hazleton/Burgess climb up Burgess St. Note the mounds of salt. They were all over the city, piling up in in randomly terrible places during the climbs.

    15. I stayed with Nick as the race diverted into downtown Pittsburgh.  It was nice to ride through the city with cheers and congratulatory honks instead of the incessant, angry horn-punching and derogatory shouts I am used to in Philly.  The next climb was on the South Side and one that I had been up before (albeit in a car and on a previous trip to PGH).  Sycamore St climbs Mt Washington to a spectacular view of the three rivers point and downtown.  While I remember the car huffing and puffing up the curvy road, the climb on a bike itself wasn’t as bad as it looked before.  With Suffolk behind me and Canton looming, Sycamore felt long but never exceptionally steep, at least for this ride.  It’s still a much steeper, longer climb than anything around Philly.  We eschewed the group photograph at the top, probably because fitting 300+ people in the frame would have been a challenge none of us were willing to tackle.  On the way to the next hill we climbed a true “bonus hill”, which Strava tells me is about three-quarters of a mile with more than 8% grade.  Piece of cake.

      Nick on top of Mt Washington after Sycamore St climb.

    17. Being a fan of cycling and geography, I stopped at Canton Ave in a car on the way out of Pittsburgh once.  I didn’t get to ride my bike up, but walking was challenge enough.  This is not a hill where you want to get stuck behind anybody.  Common knowledge is that the right hand side of the road is the easiest, both in terms of grade and the condition of the cobblestones.  When I saw it before, there was a gaping hole in the street towards the top on the left and many of the cobblestones were loose and crooked.  However, a local told me that the road had recently been reconditioned.  When I saw that the group I was in was marching single file towards the right hand side of the road I decided to take a chance and cut the left hand turn onto Canton on the inside.  The plus is that I got slightly more momentum going on the hill and some room to maneuver.  The downside is that after a few crank rotations I saw someone go down hard directly in my path. As I tracked to the right someone went down near the stairs and disrupted the procession up  the “easy” line.  I settled in within arms length of the hundreds of screaming Pittsburghers, pointed my bike towards the sky, and started mashing on the pedals, head down confident that there was no one in my path.  Whoever reconditioned the cobbles did a great job – the cracks were filled evenly with hard packed dirt and I felt no problems with traction even on my skinny road tires.  About halfway up I found that I was making adrenaline-fueled conversation with myself, letting out an audible “You got this” as I stared at my flailing legs.  A couple of echos came back from the sea of heads only a couple feet away, “You GOT this!”  Before I knew it I was at the top and beelining towards the nearest banana and water cooler.  The crowd on the hill and at the top was massive.  I found Nick some ten minutes later and found out that he got Canton on his third try after a crash in front of him and a fender mishap.  I cringe at the thought of trying Canton on smooth platform pedals.  Clipless, or at least toe clips and straps, are a necessity for Canton in my book.  After refueling for a few minutes we make a right and climb a steep little hill to descend back towards the main road and tackle the last four climbs.

      Another group inches its way up Canton Ave

    19. I had either seen or heard about a handful of the climbs up to this point in the ride, but I had no idea what to expect from the last few hours of torture.  All the stopping and starting was getting to me by this point.  We had been at it for more than four hours.  Part of me was wishing I could just ride the rest of the course and get it over with, but I suppose the format is part of the challenge in the DD.  Boustead St. is very close to Canton.  It starts off on Wenzell Ave with a relatively even section that stays nice and steady probably around 12%.  I was just starting to wonder if I was becoming numb to climbing when I reached Boustead, turned left, and saw why this hill is in the race.  Boustead kicks with a vengeance beyond 30% at points, nearly as steep as Canton but over twice as long.  Kind of like a shorter version of Logan once you make that left turn, but with a long run-in to soften the legs up.  It’s relatively narrow and apparently always covered in tiny rocks and salt piles to make life miserable.  There is minimal space at the top to regroup so the group starts moving quickly after finishing.  Boustead is one of the less charismatic climbs and has no view, but tends to be one of the hills that finishes people.  Not a place to get stuck behind Joe Slow if his legs are still soft from Canton.  It’s a sobering hill after the party atmosphere at Canton, quick to kick you if you eat too much or let the legs get cold.  There’s another bonus hill to get out of the Beechwood area, longer but less steep than the connector in (1 mile at 5.5% according to Strava).


    21. I thought I might have another go at points during Welsh Way, but got stuck behind a larger rider who was chatting with his friend on the run-in to the climb.  There is a little overpass and a hard right, a short downhill then a left onto Welsh.  The climb itself is similar to Rialto – dead straight and evenly graded, kind of like a playground slide.  The road surface was a bit older and has little ridges carved into it for car traction, but not as bad as Berryhill or Logan.  It has a kick at the end where it probably gets close to 30% but it’s short.  Like Rialto, only about two riders abreast can ride, depending on how well parked the cars are on the lefthand side.  The top dead ends in a small dirt turnaround big enough for one car.  Welsh felt a bit more difficult than Rialto, although by this point in the day I’m convinced it was mostly fatigue and mounting frustration at my inability to find a clear line through the suffering hordes.  The cool factor on this road is off the charts; it’s totally hidden and off any grid structure to the streets.  It would be difficult to find if it wasn’t part of the DD.  Finish it the first time up or you will be forced to deal with people walking/riding back down in your way.


    23. Two more climbs to go.  You may think the worst is surely behind you, but you have yet to meet Barry H. Eleanor.  The most personable climb by name was the most capricious climb for me.  Ultra-steep sections, ultra-narrow streets, changing grades, mounds of salt and rock debris, cracked road surfaces, badly parked cars, potholes, and devilish mind games; Barry H. Eleanor combines every obstacle one faces throughout the day except for cobblestones, but adds massive fatigue and dropping temperatures as the sun flirts with the horizon.  Barry St ramps up viciously from the bottom and doesn’t relent.  There was a bottleneck as riders turned off of the much larger Josephine St and hit the wall causing near-track stands in the middle.  Inch high piles of salt appeared randomly, forcing riders to take erratic lines, forcing those on the wrong side into parked cars or sidewalks.  I think I slid backwards at one point when someone slowed up front and everyone started yelling.  You do NOT want to start from the bottom again at this point in the race.  The grade evens out to almost level for a merciful block but doesn’t widen, which causes another logjam as people continue to pedal at 20 rpm in their lowest gears.  The lefthand turn onto Eleanor St quickly comes into view, where you can see people riding up at angles the appear to defy the laws of physics.  Like Suffolk, you have no idea how far you are from the top of the hill until you make the turn and realize you’re only halfway up.  The clang of the cowbells from the top of the hill sounds like a mile away.  You pass five streets before finally cresting at the intersection of the sixth.  It was on Eleanor St that I came closest to putting that foot down.  I began to swerve a bit halfway towards the top when a rider came buzzing by me at twice my speed on the left, surprising me and causing me to jerk right.  He made it about 20 feet past me before he pulled off to the side, a block from the top, and stood on the side street.  I saw him look back down with terror in his eyes and I pushed on past.  On fresh legs Barry H. Eleanor might be marginally easier than Suffolk, but as it stands this is in my opinion the toughest hill in the race.


    25. I had my point and I made it up all the hills.  It doesn’t really matter how hard the last hill is, I told myself.  I’m sure others did, too.  If you’ve succeeded in making it this far you will find a way to make it.  The unique aspect of the last hill, Flowers/Kilbourne/Tesla, is that it technically starts four and a half miles from the top.  These last few miles are ridden like a true road race for people in the running for a last shot at a win or points.  For me it was survival, as after Danny blows the whistle the nice, neutral group ride splinters all over the place.  My goal was to at the very least keep a group in sight so that I wouldn’t get lost.  Many people do get lost on this final section, so it might be a good idea to write the directions to the final hill down on your top tube if you’re thinking of doing the DD and don’t know Pittsburgh.  We stay along a highway and I find myself pushing a much larger gear than I thought I would be able to along the flats and over the Monongahela River.  Someone told me a story of how she got isolated last year and was forced to ride into nasty headwinds alone.  Not the case this year, but it’s another good reason to stay with a group.  The actual climbing section that begins on Flowers Ave is the longest hill of the entire race – almost a full mile long and nearly twice the time it took me to climb Sycamore.  Thankfully Flowers Ave and Kilburne are at a relatively merciful grade.  By the time I had made it mostly up Kilburne I could see the end of the road where I would be forced to take a lefthand turn.  Although I couldn’t see Tesla St through the trees I knew there had to be something terrible coming.  I began to cramp for the first time in the race on the final wall and slowed down to a glacial crawl, agonizing over every crank rotation, but once the cramp passed I knew I had it.  Nick sprinted by me on the final steep section in a triumphant display of accomplishment while I savored every last twitch of pain that the Dirty Dozen inflicted, turning the last few pedal strokes into a grotesque display of exhaustion.  Then it was done and we went home.