Defying the Dirty Dozen: Cyclists take on steepest of Pittsburgh's steep hills


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Bob Stumph had just finished 4th in the race to the top of Canton Avenue, the steepest of 13 hills cyclists tried to race up Saturday during the 29th running of the Dirty Dozen bike race.

But that's not what Mr. Stumph, 24, a barber from Beaver, wanted to talk about with his band of supporters, who cheered him as he took on the hills, each of them at least a 20 percent grade.

"I'm so glad you came," he shouted to his girlfriend's mother, Becky Gannon, over the cacophony of cow bells, air horns, and shouts of "Go! Go! Go!" Nearly 200 spectators lined both sides of the 100-yard-long cobblestone street to cheer on other cyclists trying -- many in vain -- to climb the 37 percent grade hill. "This is what the Dirty Dozen is all about."


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That was the sentiment of the day for the 300 or so riders who came out trying to fulfill the goal the race founders had when they started in 1983 with just five participants: the three co-founders and two friends.

"The whole thing back then was to try to do outrageous rides," said Bob Gottlieb, 52, a Squirrel Hill resident who still rides the race occasionally. "Whether it was a 150-mile ride in the Laurel Highlands, or to ride the steepest dozen hills in Pittsburgh in one day, we just wanted to do rides that we could challenge ourselves and hang out with our friends." There were 12 hills that first year, and there have been as many as 15, but this year it was a baker's dozen.

While the race still has that quirky, grass-roots feel to it -- it has a $15 registration fee, it doesn't take out permits with the cities it runs through, there's no title sponsor, and the 13 finish lines are hand-drawn orange chalk lines on the streets -- Saturday's turnout may eventually change all of that.

Though the race has grown steadily, its previous record attendance from 2009 was still just 185 participants -- already making it Pittsburgh's biggest bike race.

But last year the race caught the attention of WQED public television's famed documentarian, Rick Sebak. He brought two cameramen to the 2010 race and produced a show that ran on WQED's "It's Pittsburgh" series in January.

Mr. Sebak, who won a regional Emmy for the piece, said he was drawn to document the race for a basic reason: "Its spirit seems to be very Pittsburghian. It demonstrates how we love our hills."

Largely as a result of that publicity and the great fall weather, Saturday's race broke the previous record by more than 60 percent with about 300 riders.

Many of those people who have helped support the race and spread the word of its insane beauty over the years believe that popularity means it will soon have to change. The hills they race up are narrow streets designed two centuries ago, and it was already getting tight with 185 racers. And with 300 cyclists, the peloton is that much longer and unwieldy on even the main roads.

"It's getting to the point where now it really needs a title sponsor and some formal organization," said Mr. Gottlieb, who owns a scrap metal plant on Neville Island. "Because, eventually, something is going to happen as it gets bigger."

Glenn Pawlak, owner of Big Bang Bicycles in West Mifflin and a sponsor of the race for the last two years, agreed that having 300-plus cyclists in one race could be a tipping point "or a breaking point."

"It's getting big enough that it's going to need to be dealt with in a higher, more professional fashion," he said.

Pittsburgh Police had already let race organizer Danny Chew -- one of the co-founders and by all accounts the reason the race has grown like it has -- know that it was becoming unwieldy two years ago. They asked him to not take the cyclists through the Liberty Tunnel on the way back into the city near the end of the race.

"So I stopped [going through the tunnel] because I want to be on good terms with them," said Mr. Chew, a nationally renowned long-distance cyclist who has twice won the Race Across America.

Still, he has resisted the idea of making it an officially sanctioned race.

"They know I do it," Mr. Chew, 49, of Squirrel Hill said of the police. "I tried to get a permit [from Pittsburgh] last year, but it cost too much."

This year, anticipating more riders, Mr. Chew rounded up more volunteer marshals to help control traffic and watch the cyclists at each of the 87 intersections they cross during the six hours they are out on the streets of Pittsburgh and several surrounding suburbs.

And he asked his two supporters, Big Bang Bikes and Eat'n Park, to help out a bit more with funding and contributions.

Brooks Broadhurst, vice president of Eat'n Park and a cyclist, came out to help as a marshal and contributed Smiley Cookies, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and hot chocolate.

He said he and his company have taken note of the race's unique quality already, in part because the course goes past two of its restaurants.

Like everyone who is part of the race, he recognizes that in addition to the grueling hills and quirky fun, it's Mr. Chew who makes the race what it is.

"He's a unique character," Mr. Broadhurst said. "No one else could do it."

With his high-pitch, staccato voice and endless championing of the Dirty Dozen, Mr. Chew's infectious enthusiasm seems to have impressed everyone who has done the race -- despite the pain it causes.

"Well, racing this is like hitting yourself with a hammer: When you stop, it feels real good," said Jim Switzer, 56, a high school automotive technology teacher from Dimock, Pa., who came out for his first race Saturday. "Only Danny could get this many people out to do something like this."

Only a couple dozen riders ever hope to score a point in the race -- the top 10 men and top five women up each hill get points in descending order. The rest of the racers are merely trying to complete each hill. That's a tall order when walking up hills -- a compelling option on most of them -- doesn't count as completing a hill.

Ann-Marie Alderson of Etna won the women's race for the first time, one of only three women to finish every hill out of 13 women who competed.

In the men's race, Steve "Steevo" Cummings, 31, a Howard Hanna real estate agent from Lawrenceville, won the men's race for the eighth time in a row.

Before the race he insisted he was "scared" because it was "so much pain" to contemplate doing the race again -- a sentiment he couldn't completely let go, even after winning.

"I don't want to come back," he said with a smile while leaning on his bike, still breathing heavily after completing the last hill on Tesla Street in Hazelwood. "I hope it snows a lot next year so we don't have to do it."

But with all of Saturday's success, the question remains, would Mr. Chew allow it to become more professionally run with a title sponsor and all that that means?

He would, though he conceded, "It is a little upsetting, because it started so small, and it was kind of nice when I knew everybody in the race, but there's something nice about having hundreds of people trying all of these hills."


Correction/Clarification: (Published December 2, 2011) A story about the Dirty Dozen bike race that appeared in Sunday's section gave the incorrect name for the race's primary sponsor. It is Big Bang Bikes.

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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