Friday, December 5, 2014

The Dirty Dozen

Pedaling up the 37% grade of Canton Avenue in Pittsburgh
Looking for a way to REALLY burn off your Thanksgiving turkey dinner? Next year, pencil the Dirty Dozen on your calendar.

The city of Pittsburgh ranks right up there with San Francisco, maybe even more so, for the number of hills in and around the city, including the steepest official street in the United States.

The Dirty Dozen race began over 30 years ago when two-time Race Across America (RAAM) champion Danny Chew, his brother Tom, and a couple friends wondered what it would be like to ride a bicycle route that encompassed the 13 steepest hills within a 10-kilometer radius of the city. They did some research, came up with a ride of about 50 miles, and the Dirty Dozen was born.

The race is held every year on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. Participation has increased every year, with the most people joining on years when the weather is better.

I did my first Dirty Dozen in 2005, and went back in 2007. Among the other statistics that Danny keeps on his web site is a list of those who have participated in three or more Dirty Dozens. After a hiatus of seven years, I was happy to finally be able to make it this year and add my name to the exclusive list.

The race begins at the Bud Harris Cycling Track, located on the city's east side near the zoo. The stretches of road between the hills are neutral. As the group approaches the base of one of the "official" hills, Danny sounds his whistle, and the race is on. The first riders to reach the top of the hill are awarded points based on the order. Whoever has the most points at the end wins. You have to successfully finish every hill to be eligible as a winner or finisher. If you stop, fall, or put a foot down on any part of the hill, you must go back to the bottom and start over.

Only a dozen or two racers are actually strong enough to contend for points on the hills; the majority of the rest are just along for the ride and bragging rights. With temperatures in the upper 40s and even reaching to 50 this year, it was a record turnout, with over 320 riders, including a record number of women, 25.

For the past ten years, the race was won by local racing legend and former bike messenger Steve Cummings, a.k.a. Steevo. This year, his rein was finally toppled by young 17-year-old upstart Ian Baun. In 2nd place was another local legend, Gunnar Shogren, who held the title of National Mountain Bike Champion back in the '80s. Gunnar, at 52 years old, is still an animal, and proved it by finishing the race on a singlespeed bike! Steevo ended up in 4th place.

For the women, this year's champion was Betsy Shogren (yes, that's Mrs. Gunnar Shogren), who notched her 3rd win at the DD, this time also on a singlespeed.

Back in '05, I rode my Bianchi Volpe cyclocross bike, which was equipped with a 26-36-48 triple-chainring setup. In '07, I rode the same bike, but that time it had a compact double 34-50 crankset. That bike has since been replaced in my fleet with a Surly Cross-Check with the same drive train, but instead I opted to ride my Salsa Fargo. I recently upgraded it with a mountain double 26-39 crankset, and a 12-36 cassette, and I'm glad I did, as I think my aging legs would not have made it any other way.

50 miles doesn't sound like a long ride, but it will be the longest 50 miles you've ever done. Not only do the hills themselves make it a long day (all at least a 20% grade or more), but some of the neutral hills in-between are killers. Plus, you'll wait for the crowd to catch up at the top of each hill before moving on. The ride starts at 10:00am, and you'll be rolling back to your car at the start as it gets dark after 5:00pm, so bring your headlight and blinky taillight.

Check out this video to see what it's all about. This is this year at Canton Avenue, that infamous 37% hill, and #9 on the list:

Click here if the video above is not appearing for you. Search YouTube for "Dirty Dozen Pittsburgh" for many more videos from over the years.

Want to do a local ride that will help prepare you for the Dirty Dozen? We've got our own baker's dozen of hills here in the Cuyahoga Valley, and you can check out the best and worst of them on our 82-mile Death Ride.

For more details about the history of the Dirty Dozen race, the hills and the route, and stats from past winners and finishers, go to and click on "Dirty Dozen" in the menu on the left.

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