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Going Up: Dirty Dozen Bike Race Rides Again This Weekend

Ryan Loew
90.5 WESA

One of Pittsburgh’s most popular bicycling events turns 30 years old this Saturday.

The Dirty Dozen bike race challenges cyclists to climb the 13 steepest hills in the city. The 50-mile route takes riders from Highland Park, through the North Hills and the North side, across the Roberto Clemente and Smithfield Street bridges, through the South Hills and the South Side, ending in Hazelwood.

Danny Chew founded the race in 1983 with his brother Tom and their friend Bob Gottlieb. Chew said that first year, only five people rode the race, including Gottlieb and the Chew brothers.

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgher Danny Chew founded the race 30 years ago with his brother Tom Chew and their friend Bob Gottlieb.

“It took a long time for it to grow,” Chew said. “By the 15th year, I was still only getting about 20 people. It was only in the last 10 years that I started getting up to 100 riders, and then 200 to 300 in the last few years.”

The first Dirty Dozen was held in December, but Chew and his cohort eventually moved the race to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They felt it would attract more riders, since many of their cycling friends would be back in town visiting family for the holiday.

The rules of the race are fairly simple. The first person to the top of each hill gets 10 points, the second person gets nine, the third gets eight, and so on. The winner is determined by who gets the most points at the end of the day. Riders only race on the hills. The ride from one hill to the next is neutral. At the bottom of each hill, Chew blows a whistle which lets riders know the race is on.

Chew said most of the riders are not there to win, or even to get points. Rather, they just want to finish all 13 hills. There are too many riders to keep careful track of who finishes, so Chew runs things on the honor system.

“You have to have continuous forward motion,” Chew said. “You can weave right or left, but you can’t stop or go backwards to make the hill, so-called ‘officially.’ If you don’t make it, I say go back to the beginning and try it again. You can try as many times as you want, but of course the more times you try, the more total feet of elevation and climbing you get for the day, so it’s going to make it a tough, long day for you.”

One of the most infamous hills in the Dirty Dozen is Canton Avenue in Beechview. With a 37 percent grade, it is the steepest paved street in the city and is considered one of the steepest in the world. It’s also one of two hills with cobblestones, which Chew said always leads to a lot of crashes as people lose their balance.

Because the hill is only about one-tenth of a mile long, riders will try it over and over if they don’t make it all the way up the first time.

“One guy was on a recumbent bike — that’s the kind of bike where it looks like you’re laying down on your back — and he made every hill but Canton,” Chew said. “His front wheel kept lifting off. He couldn’t keep the front wheel on the ground, so I felt really sorry for him. After about seven tries, he gave up.”

At 51 years old, Chew still rides the race along with the rest of the cyclists each year, and awards himself points for his performance. In 2012, he came in 10th place in a field of 232 men.