Though more than 400 people gathered at Bud Harris Cycling Oval in Highland Park on Saturday morning, one person’s conspicuous absence loomed large.
Danny Chew, the founder of the Dirty Dozen bike race and a living legend in Pittsburgh’s cycling community, surveyed the crowd remotely via Skype from his hospital bed at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The hundred or so riders who were racing for points in this year’s event crowded near a TV screen as Chew addressed them.
“Remember safety is the number one concern,” Chew said. “I don’t want anybody to get injured nearly as bad as I am, so just be safe out there. Good luck.”
Chew and his fellow organizers were right to expect a larger than usual crowd of riders at this year’s race; early estimates hover around 380 riders, a new record. Chew became paralyzed after falling from his bike in September, and he said he was surprised and touched at the amount of support he’s received from the cycling community in Pittsburgh.
“A million friends is better than a million miles, to quote Danny,” said Carol Perezluha, his older sister . “This is what he found out from his experience. The million friends supporting him is incredible and it’s helping us all to get through this trying time.”
Good luck #dirtydozen riders! May Danny Chew be with you.
— BikePGH (@BikePGH) November 26, 2016
For the first time, participants were separated into different groups, with the first pack of 100 riders competing for points. The first person up each of the thirteen hills received ten points, the second received nine, and so on for the top ten male finishers and top five female finishers. The new format made for a much quicker race for the first group out of the gate. Instead of finishing at 5 or 6pm, the winners were announced at the top of Tesla St. in Hazelwood around 3pm.
“It was pretty fast today, a lot of good competition,” said Ian Baun, 19, who won the men’s division. “It was a whole different event with the lead riders being out ahead the whole time.”
It was Baun’s second Dirty Dozen win in five attempts.
The women’s champion was also celebrating her second first place finish. Stefanie Sydlick, 31, was a professional rower before switching to cycling after undergoing shoulder surgery.
“Danny tasked me with two goals in the Dirty Dozen: to win the women’s race, of course, but also to get a perfect score and to get men’s points,” she said.
Sydlick place in the overall top ten – earning “men’s points” – on two hills this year: the final hill at Tesla St. and the tenth hill, Boustead St. in Beechview. She wasn’t able to win each hill, thus earning a perfect score, because of the ninth hill, Canton St. in Beechview, which is not only the steepest grade but is also made of cobblestones, which causes many riders to crash partway up.
Jeremiah Sullivan, 29, of West View was one of the last people to go up each hill, but many spectators considered him the fiercest competitor.
— Sarah Quesen (@squesen) November 26, 2016
He completed nine of the thirteen hills on a Healthy Ride bike, a relatively heavy bike not geared for climbing hills. But for Sullivan, the feat was symbolic.
“In February of 2015, I had a nine-month old. I was 297 pounds, so I changed my diet,” he said. “I had a friend who told me, ‘Let’s make a change. We’re going to die early if we don’t.’”
Sullivan lost 50 pounds through changes to his diet alone. When Healthy Ride launched in May, he decided to start riding on his lunch break, and the weight started to come off more quickly. By November 2015, having never ridden the race before, he decided to ride the Dirty Dozen on a Healthy Ride bike.
“I started training a year ago and then really committed a year to riding some of the hills on the North Side, ones I could reach on my lunch break,” he said.
Sullivan did the first eight hills without stopping and was able to keep up with the fifth and final group of riders. But it was Canton Ave.’s 37 percent grade that ultimately foiled his plan. After five attempts, one of which saw him make it at least 2/3 of the way up the hill, he decided to move on.
“I’m very upset and very frustrated with myself,” he said. “At the same time I don’t think I could have willed it up.”
He completed the tenth hill, Boustead St., before calling it a day due to cramping in his legs. Sullivan, who does own a bike of his own, said he's torn about what to ride in next year's Dirty Dozen.
"I want to ride my bike to complete it, but I will most likely chase the elusive monster that is completing it on the Healthy Ride."