Mark McCulloch reports from the Pittsburgh Dirty [Baker's] Dozen - a KOM race to the top of 13 of Pittsburgh's steepest climbs.
Yesterday me, Chris Wiekler, Colin Hebert and Jesse Ramsey from Tree Fort Bikes climbed 13 of the most brutal hills in and around the Pittsburgh area on our bikes. The event is the called the ‘Dirty Dozen’. The event promoter (Danny Chew) is a two time winner of the Race Across America. His goal is to bike 1 million miles before he croaks. I have no idea where he stands in his mission. Because he is sick in the head, he created this event 31 years ago. It started off with 5 riders and recently has blown up to 300+ riders.
For about 20 riders, this KOM (King of the Mountain) challenge is a race. We all start from a park at 10a doing warm-ups on a paved velodrome track and ride together as a group to the first hill. The bottom of the first hill is about two miles from the park. At the base, Danny blows his whistle and it is ‘game on’. At that point it is every man and women for themselves. The top five finishers from each gender at the top of the hill gets points (5 through 1). At the end of the 13 hills, the man and women with the most points is the overall winner. For guys like me this is nothing more than a challenge to see if I can survive the day without walking my bike up the hill or stroking out. For every hill my heart beat was 180 beats per minute. It is amazing in the 31 years this has been going on nobody has dropped dead on one of these hills. Once we all reach the top of the hill, we roll together as a group to the next hill base and Danny blows the whistle for round two. Wash, rinse and repeat 11 more times. There are two food/water fill up rest stops along the route.
Some off the hills are more brutal than others. The steepest hill in the world is Canton Avenue with a 37% profile. This is hill number 9 and the highlight of the route. And to add insult to injury, it is mostly cobblestone. I made it up the hill on my first attemp, as did Chris, Jesse and Colin. It was a total rush. Having hundreds of spectators encouraging you up the hill with cow bells was a big boost. But believe it or not, this was not the hardest hill of the day because it was over before I knew it.
Of the 13 hills, only twice did I have to unclip my shoes from the pedals. But neither stop was my fault :). On hill #4 (Hill Street) there was an unexpected garbage truck blocking 2/3 of the narrow road on the incline. It was a major bottle neck and caused some carnage as people fell off their bikes. The guy ahead of me turtled over causing me to stop. I called this the ‘pick and roll’ hill. The driver was yelling obscenities at us for being in his way. Most of us told him to go pound sand using four letter words. I just clipped back in and continued up the hill without walking. Most of the riders had to walk from this point.
What made some of these hills more difficult than Canton Avenue was the grade was 30% and they were REALLY long. Probably three to four times longer than Canton Avenue. Hill #8 (Suffolk) was HORRIBLE and by far the toughest hill. It is steep at the beginning, steeper in the middle after a 90° turn, and then steeper still after another 90° turn on cobble stones. It was the longest hill by far and took me about 5 minutes to climb, but I made it! Hill #10 was just as horrible (Boustead). You are still on an emotional high from conquering Canton Avenue, but this hill is about 30-33% in grade and two-three times longer than Canton. By this time your legs are darn near dead and you have to mentally dig deep to get up to the top without stopping.
An element of the event I was not expecting was it snowed the day before. It was 48° and mostly sunny on Saturday so the roads were dry and clear, but there were pockets of salt on these inclines of 30% from the day before which gave you almost no traction. All you could do was place your rear end on your seat and hope for the best. Fortunately for me, this did not stop me.
What makes this event so hard is you are at the complete mercy of the rider (riders) ahead of you. There is zero cadence up these hills. Everyone is going at a different speed due to their skill sets and fitness. Many times people fell. I heard about five spokes break under tension over the course of the day. Sometimes rear derailleurs and chains blow up due to the tension placed on the links. On Hill #12 the rider ahead of me was going too slow and I rubbed his rear tire, causing me to stop. I was really po’ed. But I was so determined to not walk my bike I clipped back in and started back up the hill from zero and made it. That was an accomplishment in itself.
Pittsburgh has some amazing hills. It is amazing how people inhabited this city over 100 years ago. When I look at video footage of the racers at the front, it blows my mind how fast they go. Many of the hills with sidewalk adjacent to the road were steps because it is so steep. What this event taught me is Ann Arbor hills are really nothing more than bumps. We are flat landers compared to Pennsylvania.
I highly encourage others from the Velo Club to make this annual pilgrimage to Pittsburgh and experience this event. As great as DICX is, this is even better. The YouTube link below document the course from 3 years ago. It is 27 minutes in length and does and nice job of highlighting the route. Thanks for reading.