Shut up, legs!
December 9, 2011 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Every year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, cyclists in Pittsburgh gather to ride the city's most difficult hills in The Dirty Dozen.

Since 1983, the race has covered Pittsburgh's 13 steepest hills, with grades ranging from 20% to 37%. Only the hills count, with the space in-between remaining "neutral," and untimed.

The race was founded by Danny Chew (aka The Million Mile Man), 2-time RAAM winner and likely the most well-known cyclist in the city. Danny is also known for climbing the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning 101 times in a single day, as well as riding his bike from Pittsburgh to Alaska (pdf warning) and back.

WQED, a public TV station in Pittsburgh, produced a short documentary about the 2010 race.

The official race site
The Route Map and Elevation Profile
Photos from this year's ride
posted by god hates math (43 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
And of course, the link I forgot: A short video of the Canton Avenue section of this year's race.
posted by god hates math at 12:21 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, man. That's great. I so want to do this. I don't have a chance in hell on account of my busted knee but I so want to do this.

Yet more proof that Pittsburgh is one of the coolest towns around.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:28 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Canton Avenue is the steepest street in the U.S., by the way, and possibly the world.

I'm not a biker much, but two summers ago this was the neighborhood in which I was a census enumerator, and just driving my car on similar impossibly steep, winding backstreets, was quite frightening at times.

And actually, between the hills and the weird intersections and the aggressive drivers and complete lack of bike lanes...anyone who rides a bike anywhere in Pittsburgh has my utmost respect.
posted by daisystomper at 12:28 PM on December 9, 2011

While the race still has that quirky, grass-roots feel to it -- doesn't take out permits with the cities it runs through

Haha quirky! And obnoxious and potentially extremely dangerous!
posted by gurple at 12:32 PM on December 9, 2011

That video is ridiculous. The steepness of the road is severe enough, but the cobbles, muddy bit, and other riders stopped and toppled over take it to new heights.
posted by exogenous at 12:37 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thought of riding a 37% grade, from the top down, in any sort of weather or road conditions, is what I like to call a scrotum tightener.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:50 PM on December 9, 2011

Canton Ave. looks a bit like a straighter version of the Kapelmuur. I wonder what the maximum gradient is? The map only lists average grades for the entire climb. Still, it's exiting to see that sort of course in North America.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:51 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

> A short video of the Canton Avenue section of this year's race.

Beautifully shot. You see the road, and you see the spectators on the rails, and you see, holy shit. They're standing on a staircase.

And then you see that, other than the race leaders, the most of the guys powering up Canton Ave like BAMFs are on commuter bikes while the guys on ultralight carbon fiber and TI rides are falling left and right. Suck it, weenies.
posted by ardgedee at 12:53 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, 37%. Like it says right at the top of the post. Me smart.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:54 PM on December 9, 2011

while the guys on ultralight carbon fiber and TI rides are falling left and right.

Some of them seem to be choosing a very poor line. The pavé looks rather slick in the middle, and you can see riders clearly loose traction (proof that an expensive bike does not make you a good cyclist). I would probably have ridden it closer to the curb (but I probably would have run out of cogs long before that point).

But yeah, steel all the way.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:58 PM on December 9, 2011

Actually, I've found Pittsburgh drivers to be pretty respectful and nice about bikers, especially given the narrow twisty roads and people-hiding crests and rises. Maybe I just can't hear them yelling and swearing behind their rolled up windows. Who- or whatever's responsible, I'm thankful that it makes a geographically bike-unfriendly city much more accomodating.
posted by Poppa Bear at 12:58 PM on December 9, 2011

Thanks for the post! I've both ridden in this and (this year) spectated. Both were fantastic experiences - it's great to see folks from the neighborhoods come out and tailgate and cheer on the riders. One of the hills, Sycamore Street, played a key role in the Thrift Drug Classic, which for a while in the 1990s was a top event in the US racing circuit and won by Lance Armstrong a few times, I believe. Here are some photos I found of the 1997 race.

Oh, and Danny Chew is a complete beast.
posted by chinston at 1:03 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

lose traction. I swear I'm not drunk yet.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:03 PM on December 9, 2011

Booyah. I would do this.

Anyone else on MeFi done Austin's Tour das Hugel? Toughest ride I've ever done.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:07 PM on December 9, 2011

> the most of the guys powering up Canton Ave like BAMFs are on commuter bikes

Jesus, I just noticed the guy weaving past the fallen bikes had Panniers hanging off the back of his bike as well. Was he just riding home after work and got stuck in the race?
posted by mrzarquon at 1:25 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder if my brother-in-law does this.
posted by dirigibleman at 1:31 PM on December 9, 2011

Shut up, legs!

I really hope that was an intentional Jens Voigt quote. It makes me giddy.

posted by The Michael The at 1:31 PM on December 9, 2011

Canton Ave. looks a bit like a straighter version of the Kapelmuur

The Muur is a hard climb, but the surface isn't too bad, and it's only really steep near the top. Canton Ave. looks more like a short version of the Koppenberg, which—even though it was improved a couple of years ago—can be rendered nearly unrideable in anything but perfect weather.

So, clearly, if I ever move back to the US from Belgium I'm going have to move to Pittsburgh.
posted by dseaton at 1:40 PM on December 9, 2011

Funny, since posting the Kapelmuur video, I've been watching cycling videos all afternoon. The Koppenberg does strike me as more like Canton Ave., although I think Canton and the Muur both have steeper grades. The Koppenberg did, however, inspire one of the few memes I have generated.

which I have since had to reproduce using their new format
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:55 PM on December 9, 2011

I loved the pannier guys outdoing the weight weenies, but then I read more about the race.

The most coveted prizes are for completing the race with the highest gear ratio. Having a wide range cassette and a granny gear, like all proper commuting and touring bikes should have, makes the race a lot easier than using a compact road cassette and big time trial chainrings.

People have completed the race in reasonable time using fixed gear bikes.

The only category I have any chance of winning is heaviest rider to complete the race. The current title holder is 220 pounds. I am 215, but I could easily gain 10 pounds in a few weeks and use my big ass touring bike with the 14-34 custom cassette and the 24 tooth granny chainring.
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 1:58 PM on December 9, 2011

I guess I have to start eating now. These are the records, look at those gear ratios:

Most wins: 9 by Danny Chew in 83, 84, 85, 87-90, 97, & 03
Most consecutive wins: 7 by Steve Cummings from 2004-2010
Most wins, women: 2 by Betsy Shogren in 2009 & 2010
Youngest winner: 16 year old Josh Smith in 1992
Oldest winner: 41 year old Danny Chew in 2003
Heaviest winner: 186 pound Tom Chew in 1983 (first DD)
Oldest hill winner: 50 year old Billy Kanarek in 2003
Oldest points scorer: 56 year old Oscar Swan in 1998
Oldest finisher: 65 year old Roger Brockenbrough in 1999
Youngest finisher: 13 year, 36 day old Andrew Reay in 2009
Heaviest finisher: 240 pounds by J. R. Petsko in 2009
Longest time between DDs: 23 years from 1984 to 2007 by Jonathan Pratt
Highest low gear winner: 42x23 by Danny Chew in 1988
Highest low gear finisher: 45x22 (also fixed gear) by Gunnar Shogren in 2010

First fixed gear finisher: Montana Miller in 2009
First tandem finisher: Brothers Jody & Adam Lobert in 2000
Highest score to ever win DD: 64 points (out of 65) by Danny Chew in 1988 & women's winner Betsy Shogren in 2009
Most riders: 185 in 2009
Coldest: High of 27 degrees F in 1983 (first DD)
Warmest: High of 66 degrees F in 2006
Most DD hills ridden in a day: 66 times up/down Canton Ave. in 2 hours in a 42x24 gear in 1985 by Danny Chew
posted by Ayn Rand and God at 2:02 PM on December 9, 2011

> Highest low gear finisher: 45x22 (also fixed gear) by Gunnar Shogren in 2010

posted by ardgedee at 2:08 PM on December 9, 2011

From the "it's not how big it is, it's what you do with it" crowd, I have to say I am more impressed with long climbs of lesser grades than short ones of steeper grades. You can power over a steep hill, but what kills your lungs and legs is a long, sustained climb.

This is super cool though. It seems to be more tactical than conditioning related, but to do all the climbs, you're going to need some conditioning, just not what it takes to climb a mountain pass.
posted by Eekacat at 2:09 PM on December 9, 2011

The dirtiest thing about Pittsburgh is the air those poor cyclists are going to be huffing on the way up those hills. It's seriously gross.
posted by Fister Roboto at 2:16 PM on December 9, 2011

Back when I lived in Pittsburgh - and was in awesome biking shape - there were definitely a few hills I would always stall out on.

Other than that, it's a really fun place to bike, at least in my experience. Oh, and the potholes. But the drivers aren't too bad, and there are always a ton of back streets you can take to avoid traffic if you want.

The dirtiest thing about Pittsburgh is the air

I actually never found that to be the case.
posted by i. shishkin at 2:51 PM on December 9, 2011

I am 226 lbs and did a cycling fundraiser this summer in Pittsburgh for work - a 65 mile ride through the city and surrounding neighborhoods.

There was an option to do a short route of 10 miles or the 65 mile beast. In youthful ignorance and pride, I chose the long one.

After 15 miles my butt hurt. After 25 miles, my legs were getting a little rubbery. At 30 miles, I felt liike I was close to the end but still wasn't halfway. At 50 miles, my legs completely gave out somewhere near - they were cramping and I felt like I was going to pass out. The course took us from downtown, to Blawnox, to somewhere in the North Hills, to Ambridge, to Greentree and then back to downtown. Fortunately there was a van following to give me and another biker a ride the rest of the way after we stopped at 50 miles.

Even though I stopped, I stopped at the same point as someone who had been riding three times a week all summer. I felt pretty good about that.

I also now understand the appeal of riding a challenging route. Despite my legs, I felt awesome for doing it.
posted by glaucon at 2:55 PM on December 9, 2011

*near Sewickley
posted by glaucon at 2:56 PM on December 9, 2011

The thing that this immediately brought to mind was how this could be improved (read: made much more dangerous) by combining the uphill-on-bikes portion of this with the downhill-on-foot portion of the Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling.
posted by jocelmeow at 3:12 PM on December 9, 2011

The dirtiest thing about Pittsburgh is the air

I'm honestly curious - is this a recent claim you're making? Or living on the historical stereotype?
posted by librarianamy at 4:33 PM on December 9, 2011

I'm honestly curious - is this a recent claim you're making? Or living on the historical stereotype?

I haven't verified, but when I was back home in Western PA for Thanksgiving, there were commercials running that claimed Pittsburgh has some of the worst air pollution in the country.
posted by dirigibleman at 4:44 PM on December 9, 2011

And here's a story on it.
posted by dirigibleman at 4:47 PM on December 9, 2011

Great post. Chew and his friends are just nuts. My Honda has trouble making up some of those damn goat paths we call streets around here, I can't even imagine trying to bike up one of them. The last time I drove up Suffolk street I thought that my car was going to flip over backwards. In retrospect, this may have not been the best terrain to build a city on.
posted by octothorpe at 8:44 PM on December 9, 2011

I did this twice while I was going to school in Pittsburgh. It's a pretty fun ride.

Canton Ave. is more of a technical challenge than anything else-- it's steep, but I cranked right up on an old mountain bike I got on Craigslist for $120. And practice makes a big difference, as does staying on the clear right side rather than the grassy left side. Having low gears made much more of a difference than having an exceptionally light bike would.

Other hills-- like Barry-Holt-Eleanor or Flowers-Tesla-- are a lot more punishing on account of their sheer length, especially the first time I did the ride, when I thought I was pretty close to done with the hill and it turned out that not only was I maybe halfway there at best, but the hill also got steeper. Awesome.
posted by akgerber at 10:08 PM on December 9, 2011

I used to commute over the west hills in Portland on a fixed gear bike geared at 52x15.
Any person who tries the hill in that video is a beast and worthy of beer drinking.

This makes me wonder what Kings Hill would look like if cars were diverted for a few hours... *BRILLIANT IDEA*
posted by tmt at 10:22 PM on December 9, 2011

I lived in Pittsburgh when I went to grad school and there were always stories about how it has like the 3rd worst air quality in America. As someone who biked around quite a bit, this was particularly concerning.

The air quality in Pittsburgh now makes me wonder what it must have been like before the steel industry pretty much imploded there. Yikes.
posted by Fister Roboto at 10:10 AM on December 10, 2011

The thing is -- and I never believed it until I started riding fixed -- fixed gears are awesome for hill climbing. Even if the efficiency gain over a derailleur-geared bike is trivial, you can feel the difference, and the bike's momentum helping move the pedals during the weakest part of the stroke also helps immensely. It's not like you're going to be coasting anyway during a steep climb.

But the gotcha is you only get one gear. Choose wisely. If you can't hit a hill at a speed within your optimal cadence, you've just made the work a lot harder.
posted by ardgedee at 11:27 AM on December 10, 2011


Gunnar Shogren doesn't need knees.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 12:38 PM on December 10, 2011

Living in pittsburgh for a while, at one point I had a commute that took me up negley. It isn't steep enough to make it on this list, but it is really long. I remember one of my friends convinced another of my friends to take off his shoes and they both ran down the whole thing. I am impressed that neither of them had to wipe out in a bush on the way down.
posted by jonbro at 1:10 PM on December 10, 2011

Pittsburgh, how I love ye:
Your barnacled cobbles and
Steep-dropping hills, all
Curves and swoops and passes.
Your soot-covered churches
From an age gone hence
And your cathedral of glass
"Our Lady of PPG".

Give me yinz poor, yinz
Crowded mass transit,
And deliver me from Cleveland
For thine is the black, and the gold,
And the gray of sky forever
World without end.

posted by IAmBroom at 9:17 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

BTW, True Fact: Many staircases in Pittsburgh are considered actual city streets... a fact your GPS may not consider important.

One block from me is a street sign marking the intersection of Lappe with Haslage. Lappe from Yetta northwards is a real, drivable street, but on both sides of Haslage, it is a staircase.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:20 AM on December 12, 2011

I've ridden around Pittsburgh, but not in the city on these particular hills, and the area is brutal. You sir, have added something to my bucket list.
posted by dgran at 11:40 AM on December 12, 2011

This is so awesome! Canton looks positively insane. Portland has something similar called De Ronde Van West Portlandia. 18 climbs, 47 miles. I've done it the past couple of years. Super fun, super hard. No cobbles, and the steepest grade is on Brynwood at 23%. Or 31%, depending on who you talk to.

Some links:

OPB video with a good summary.
Amateur video of a couple of the climbs
bikeportland posts about the ride in the past few years.
posted by funkiwan at 1:10 AM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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