The 2021 Dirty Dozen

October 23, 2021
56.85 miles
Pittsburgh, PA
Strava Activity

This Saturday, I rode my first Dirty Dozen! The Dirty Dozen is an annual race/ride passing through thirteen of Pittsburgh’s toughest hills. It’s a day of lots of climbing, lots of suffering, and lots of fun. According to Strava, it was about 2 kilometers (~6500 feet) of climbing, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. The point of the Dirty Dozen hills is that they’re short but incredibly steep. The most famous hill, Canton Avenue, is supposedly the steepest public road in the continental US, with a section at an insane 37% grade. But any Dirty Dozen veteran will tell you that Canton is not nearly the hardest hill of the day.

First, to set out the rules of the event: to be an official finisher, you need to make it up all of the official hills without stopping. (There are random smaller hills in the middle of the ride, but those don’t count for anything.) This means that you must make continual upward progress on your bike; if you can’t make it, you must go to the bottom of the hill to try again. Repeat thirteen times on Pittsburgh’s hardest hills and you’ve completed the event. Simple, right?

The Start of the Day

This year, it was, unfortunately, a cold, wet, dreary morning, basically what you’d expect from Pittsburgh at this time of the year. There was some rain as well. I honestly would not have gone for a ride myself in this kind of weather, but I was willing to make an exception for the Dirty Dozen. As I was putting my kit on, I debated whether or not to throw on an extra layer for warmth; I decided to do it, which turned out to be a good choice.

The ride was set to begin at the Rhododendron Shelter in Highland Park, a fairly short ride from my apartment. When I got there, I was quite surprised; I had never seen such a large conglomeration of cyclists in Pittsburgh before. It was hard to get an exact count, since different groups were coming and going, but there were probably about a couple hundred people riding the event.

I was in one of the non-competitive but still fast-ish groups, which I think was a good choice. The group was impressively diverse; while most were riding standard-issue road bikes, there was a lot of variety in gear choice. On one end, some had opted for gearing so low that it was practically mountain bike gearing; on the other end, there was a crazy couple riding single-speed bikes! The youngest person present was fourteen—impressively, I believe he made it up all of the hills. We were mostly men, but throughout the day we picked up a few women who had dropped back from the women’s competitive group, which had gone before us.

I recognized another person (Alex) from the CMU Cycling Club in my group, but we didn’t really talk besides exchanging a greeting at the top of one of the hills. I also conversed briefly with an alumnus who was riding in another group at one of the rest/food stations.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Dirty Dozen hills themselves, since I had only been to two of them before. The initial hills were honestly not that bad; the first hill that really hurt was Logan Street, which is traditionally the fifth hill in the event. Describing Logan is quite simple: the hill is split into three segments. You see, the first segment is just incredibly steep. The second segment…is also incredibly steep. The third segment…is both incredibly steep and paved with cobblestone. Not fun. One poor fellow in our group came off his bike just a few feet shy of the marker at the top of the hill; I think he decided to go back down to try again.

Although the group would inevitably fall apart as some people went faster up the hills, our ride leader took regrouping after every hill very seriously. We would always wait at the top for any stragglers and give everyone a chance to take a breather. Between hills, we rode at practically a snail’s pace, meaning that no one was seriously in danger of being dropped. (This did mean that our average speed for the ride was rather low.)

Skyscrapers across river
The view of downtown Pittsburgh from the top of Mount Washington, after climbing Sycamore Street. (full resolution)

At hill number eight1 was Sycamore Street, the only hill that I had successfully done before. With my legs already quite tired, I ended up riding more than a minute slower than my best time, but at least I was confident that I could make it up, since I had done so before.

At some point in the middle of the ride, I accidentally stopped the recording on my Apple Watch. This wasn’t really a problem; I just had to start a new recording and stitch the two files together on my computer afterward. I was a little more vigilant after that, and this didn’t happen again.

Second Time’s the Charm

On most hills, the crowd was thin; it mostly consisted of neighborhood residents who had come out to watch the funny men in Lycra hurt themselves on bikes. (There were multiple groups, so you get several times the fun watching!) This was not the case for the most famous of the hills, Canton Avenue. Because of its notoriety as the “steepest” street in the country, it’s always a spectacle, and a large crowd gathers on the slopes to watch the people try to make it up without stopping.

While the most famous of the thirteen hills, Canton is generally considered the physically least taxing, mostly because it’s extremely short. It’s only a ten to thirty second max effort until you’re at the top. However, it is probably the most technically challenging, in the sense that there is a “correct” technique and an “incorrect” technique to tackling Canton. Once you learn the correct way to do it, it’s not so bad.

Cyclist on hill
I’m climbing in blue with the white helmet. My jacket is admittedly a bit unfashionably baggy. I bought it after I tore up my original jacket in a crash, but it fits a lot worse. Picture from Ornoth on Flickr. (full resolution)

I will admit, going in, I felt a little cocky. Canton is a really steep cobblestone hill, but I had previously conquered Belgium’s famed Koppenberg, one of the hardest cobbled climbs in the world. What was this little hill in Pittsburgh going to do to me? I had also finished near the front of the group on my first attempt on all of the hills we’d ridden so far, so what could go wrong?

Cyclist on hill
Again, I’m in blue with the white helmet. You can see my “race” number—254—on my helmet if you zoom in. Here, I’m starting to weave back and forth, likely in trouble. Picture from Meghan Sullivan on Flickr. (full resolution)

Well, I did some things right. I left enough space in front of me that I wouldn’t be forced to stop if the rider in front of me went down. I took the right side of the road, which is generally the best line to take. But I made a foolish mistake: I typically like climbing while seated in the saddle, so I thought to start the climb seated and only get out of the saddle when it got really steep in the middle. By then it was too late, and I could feel myself slowing down to a halt. I was forced to put my foot down in the middle of the hill.

Cyclists on hill
I’m in blue in the background, shamefully walking my bike down the hill to try again. You know, I don’t understand how all of the photographers managed to capture my failed first attempt up the hill, but not my successful second attempt. Picture from Jillita on Flickr. (full resolution)

There was nothing to be done: the Rules said that if I wanted to be an official finisher, I had to go back down to the bottom of the hill to try again. I was not the only unlucky fellow in this situation; there were a few others who were making a second attempt with me.

Cyclists on hill
A still taken from someone else’s GoPro footage, at the top of Canton. I’m at the left. Video from u/JBroms on Reddit. (full resolution)

This time, I gave my maximum effort starting from the very bottom of the hill, and I was rewarded by reaching the (quite crowded) top of the hill.

The Rest of the Hills

The intermediate riding between the hills was pretty enjoyable. The route passed through downtown; normally, I hate riding through downtown, but with a group of nearly fifty riders, it was a lot more fun. Also, although I never run red lights when riding alone, there were a couple of times when we did this as a group. It was a mob mentality sort of thing: one person would run the light, then the following rider would go, and before you knew it, the entire group was going.

It was also the day of an apparently notable college football game between the local University of Pittsburgh and Clemson University. (I think Pitt won.) I’m told that this game was a big deal; there were quite a few Pitt students who had camped out outside the stadium, and they waved to us as we rode by. After doing a couple more very painful hills, we were almost done with the day. There were now only two hills between us and finishing the ride!

That’s when our ride leader addressed us at the top of Welsh Way, the third-to-last hill. He looked at us and said: “Okay, so the next hill is tied for the hardest of the day. Be sure to save something for the section at the top.” We inquired whether it was hard because it was long or because it was steep. Unfortunately, the answer was “both.” He then told us that the road surface would be bad, and there might even be metal plates on the road due to construction. The description kept on getting worse and worse; I was half-expecting to be told that there was a nest of killer hornets at the bottom of the hill who would chase us to the top.

It turned out that he really was not kidding when he described the next hill, consisting of Barry, and Holt, and Eleanor Streets, as the hardest of the day. I think a small piece of me died with each turn of the pedal, and I was deeply envious of those who had wisely brought mountain bike gearing. I think the couple riding single-speed bikes had given up already by this point. I don’t know how to describe the experience except as “rather painful.”

But then, after reaching the top barely able to string together a coherent thought, I was confronted with a most glorious sight: some of the local residents had outfitted their garage with refreshments, including hot chocolate! My eternal gratitude goes to the South Side Neighborhood Association for the aid rendered unto me in this most dark hour.

Cheered up by the hot chocolate, I approached the last hill with high spirits. By this time, the skies had started to clear up, and the mood was generally cheerful. My legs burned on the last section of Tesla Street, on the last hill of the day, but I was carried by the knowledge that I was practically done.

The rest of the day was unremarkable. I followed some of the others through Beechwood to the after party in the East End, but it was at a brewery. Since I’m underage, there isn’t much for me to do at a brewery, so I just turned around and went home. Was this worth skipping ACF apple picking for? I think so.

  1. At least in the traditional ordering of the hills; I wasn’t really keeping track. I guess I could go back to Strava and reverse-engineer the ordering, but I can’t be bothered.↩︎