With grit, sweat they tackle 'em -- the Dirty Dozen

More than 200 cyclists hit the most grueling hills of the 'Burgh

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Just 100 yards.

A hundred yards of hell on wheels, on the steepest street in America, perhaps the world.

And that is what makes the Dirty Dozen -- a 50-mile bike race that goes up and down a dozen hills, including the fabled and feared Canton Avenue in Beechview -- so absolutely wonderful.

"There's so much pain," said Lenny Lucas, 29, of Brookline, who was among the first riders to reach the Canton summit Saturday amid cowbells ringing and cheers from hundreds of onlookers -- even though there were three more tough hills to go.

"Once you do this one you feel like you can do anything," he said, as he paused for a sip of Gatorade, marveling that Canton's gradient was 37 percent. (By way of comparison, most hills in San Francisco are in the 20 percent grade.)

"You feel, these hills, they ain't nothing to us Pittsburghers."

For six, nearly seven hours, under snowy skies and in biting winds, Mr. Lucas and 205 other hardy souls went up and down long hills and short hills -- cobbled, curved or straight up -- in a race that has earned "some real notoriety," according to Christopher Eisenberg, 48, of Baltimore, who was in the race for the first time last year. "In the cycling world, there is really nothing quite like it."

The Dirty Dozen is not exactly as famous as the Tour de France -- those listening to chatter on a police radio Saturday would have heard an alarmed report of "100 cyclists on the road in Beechview" from someone who hadn't gotten the memo. But this is Pittsburgh's biggest bicycle race, even if flurries and cold temperatures depressed this year's turnout by about 100.

There are only 10 top winners and top five women winners, who accumulate points as they go up each hill. This year Steve Cummings of Lawrenceville took first place (for the ninth consecutive year) and local rider Acadia Klain won in the women's division. (Full results are posted on www.dannychew.com/dd).

Beginning at the Bud Harris Cycling Track on Washington Boulevard, it's a stop-and-go race, where participants pedal across 87 intersections in the city and nearby suburbs, and must reach the top of each hill on their own power, without stopping or crashing, in continuous forward motion. If they don't make it at first, they can go back down and try again, as many times as they want.

Some years there have been as many as 15 hills. Last year it was a baker's dozen. This year it has exactly 12 -- thanks to the Route 28 construction project that's closed Rialto Street, or "Pig Hill," a 24 percent grade, 20-foot-wide byway once used to drive pigs up from the rail stations on Herrs Island (now Washington's Landing) to Spring Garden, once the city's meat-packing neighborhood.

The race now draws people from all over the country. Founded in 1983 by Danny Chew, his brother Tom and fellow cyclist Bob Gottlieb, the first race featured five cyclists in competition -- those three and two of their friends. Mr. Chew, an intense man who speaks in a high, almost frantic voice, is a nationally ranked cyclist and indefatigable promoter of the race, although there have been some bumps in the road. Several years ago, Pittsburgh police told him to stop routing cyclists through the Liberty Tubes, and he complied.

But the grass-roots vibe is part of Dirty Dozen's appeal. It's not officially sanctioned, though Red Bull did donate 500 cans of its energy drinks this year, "and maybe next year they'll have a banner up," said Mr. Chew's assistant, Ron Lutz.

Still, after WQED's Rick Sebak produced a documentary on the race last year, others, like David Ophel, of Summit, N.J., started hearing about it. Mr. Ophel, 55, came with his cycling friend Mats Bradow, 46, also of Summit.

"We were kinda hoping they'd cancel because of the weather," he said.

Nothing doing. Like football in Western Pennsylvania, bad weather is a part of the allure, along with the crazy-quilt of streets, some built nearly two centuries ago -- Boustead in Beechview, Center Avenue/Guyasuta Road in Aspinwall, Sycamore Street in Mount Washington, Suffolk, Hazelton and Burgess streets in the North Side and Welsh Way on the South Side, to name a few.

What's nice about the race "is that you get all kinds of people here, from messenger bike types to semi-pros," said Dan Blumenfeld, 36, of Brighton Heights, a volunteer marshal. "There's a real sense of camaraderie, with people cheering each other on."

And if someone gets injured?

"Well, half of the people competing in this race are probably doctors, so we should be all right," he said.

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published November 25, 2012 5:00 AM


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