Dirty Dozen: Your gears won’t save you in Pittsburgh

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“Do you even shift, bro?”

Steel City, as seen from Mt. Washington.
Steel City, as seen from Mt. Washington.

For a rust belt city like Pittsburgh, which has made smart improvements to its cycling infrastructure over the years despite its brutal hills, the Dirty Dozen is sort of a self-indulgent, navel-gazing nod to the comically steep roads carved out where no practical road should be. The race, held each Saturday after Thanksgiving for the last couple decades or so, takes riders up the 13 steepest hills in the city–none of them is less than a 20 percent grade. Founded by RAAM winner Danny Chew, the ride canvasses 50 miles of Pittsburgh streets. Now that my legs and lungs have recovered, I give you my report.

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Regrouping at a summit before setting out en masse to the next climb.
Regrouping at a summit before setting out en masse to the next climb. Don’t worry, minivan, we’ll be on our way.

When I told a few riding buddies I was considering riding the Dirty Dozen on a single speed, I was met with their incredulous replies: “Road bike, or you’ll die.” “Ha, seriously? Road bike!” “Do you even shift, bro?”

But for each “Yes” vote on Issue Road Bike, the single speed advocates were equally vocal. The night before I left, I went to my basement and drank about it. I scoured my parts for a usable cog, but came up with a 21. That wouldn’t do. I then started tearing apart an old 8 speed cassette to get that 26 cog. I put it on my SSCX bike with a 9 speed chain, rendering my solid, sensibly geared cross bike into a cartoonishly low 38 x 26 hill killer that looked like the drive mechanism of a conveyor belt. Or something. I figured we’d ebb between arduous climbs and fast descents, rendering my cruising gearing irrelevant.

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Just climbing along.
Just climbing along.

I arrived at the start with my spintastic bike, one of 300-plus riders. I later found out I was one of five single speeders, known as the Dirty Dozen on One group. Gulp. After a mile or so leadout, we tackled three climbs within a few miles. The ride in between each hill was neutral, so there wasn’t a chance for any dick swinging until the road went, like, straight up. Which it did, fairly often. We climbed steadily up a few hills as rude preamble to the actual hills awaiting behind them. I heard riders in the group wonder aloud whether the climb we were on was a Hill, or just part of the neutral route. Then we’d see helmets bobbing up a switchback ahead, and everyone would groan. I judged a hill’s severity based on how loud people were cheering and how many whiskey bottles were getting passed around at the summit.

I eventually met all of the other single speeders. Gunnar Shogren, a 52 year old from West Virginia, who is a perennial powerhouse at this race, ended up in 2nd place overall. I Googled him later, and realized he’s a big deal in the racing/cycling/BAMF world. You should Google him, too. His wife, Betsy, not only won the women’s category for the third time, but was the first woman SS finisher for the DD. I’m not worthy. A guy named Bob from Columbus, Ohio, rocked a Nature Boy and a Paradise Garage jersey, and seemed to do just fine with a smaller cog than mine. Scott from Nashville, riding his fourth Dirty Dozen on a singled out MootoX, reassured me before every hill: Na, you’ll be fine on this one. Oh, this hill is a bitch, but we’ll kick its ass. And so on. He was mostly right. [Thanks for the props, Scott.]

I won’t dissect each and every one of the 13 hills. They ranged from manageable to Sweet Merciful Crap Why God. Whenever we hit a real doozy, like Welsh Way (#11), I marveled at the fact that a road even existed there. Sure, I’m used to the predictability of Chicago’s flat grid, and I get that Pittsburgh perhaps could only build so many roads in so many places. But Welsh Way? It was a gnarly climb, somewhere in the 30 percent grade range that leveled out at the top into some weird cul-de-sac parking lot from which everyone immediately turned around and descended into the weaving line of still-climbing riders.You could smell brake pads burning down most hills, but this one was a real cooker. How did they even pave this road? By somehow starting at the top and pouring concrete down the slope? Who lives here? What purpose do roads like this really serve? Why is the sidewalk a staircase?–How?–Ugh, keep climbing or die.

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No sweat for the tandem.
(No) sweat for the tandem.

The infamous Canton Avenue hill, a 37 percent grade on Pittsburgh’s southwest side, claims the distinction of being the steepest publicly recorded hill in the United States. The 9th hill, it was one of the shortest, making it rideable for most of the pack:

Awaiting the pack.
Awaiting the pack on Canton Ave.
37 percent grade of concrete and brick.
Canton Ave: 37 percent grade of concrete and brick.

I made it up on my single cog somehow in midst of the aforementioned road existence panic in my head.


Overall, I made it up 11 of the 13 (one because someone fell in front of me and the other, well, I was gassed; but I know, excuses). Considering the flat land I ride is the topographical opposite of western Pennsylvania, I’d consider that a success. It was a ride of power management, with the shifting game removed from my hands—not that anyone else was shifting mid-mash. I’m used to getting shredded after 50-mile gravel grinders and intense cross races, not completely blown apart by red-lining up mind-boggling hills.

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Would I do it again? Probably. Next time, there will be a smaller cog and bigger flask. Cheers to you, Pittsburgh. You put on a good hurt.

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About Wrighteous

Keeper of the DC colors in the American Midwest.

16 Replies to “Dirty Dozen: Your gears won’t save you in Pittsburgh”

  1. Pingback: Dirty Dozen: Your gears won’t save you in Pittsburgh | PEDAL CANTON

  2. Hey man. You rocked it! Red Beard here. We did some bs’n on the neutrals and then you’d pass me on the hills. When I was making my DD video, I left the part in, when I made it up to the top of Canton, you shaking your fist at me lol.. Hope to see you next year. Great job.

  3. That whiskey being passed around all day? That was me :p Started off with a sixer of High Life and a litre of Bird Dog, by the end it was all gone, most of it in my belly. If I recall correctly, that last photo of us was at the top of final hill 13? Terrain was certainly different than central Ohio, but I’ll be back next year, with child trailer in tow

  4. Yeah, that Gunnar and Betsy what a fun couple……. couple-o-bad asses. I like the way Betsy giggles when she kicks your ass.

  5. Stealing my one liners I see. Congrats on the finish, solid ‘wright’ up. Likely the only novel I’ll read this year. Also DUDE YER RIGHT WRITE WRIGHT RITEING FOR DRUNKCYCLIST!!!

  6. 13eard and Charles – yep, I remember ya. Great to ride with you and thanks for the whiskey pull. Sorry about all the weird verbal abuse I gave to my bike that you had to hear.

  7. Nice job Nik. Your mission is clear. It is to map the dirty dozen rating each hill by groan decibels and number of whiskey bottles that appear at each summit.