Bicyclists to tackle 13 of city's tallest hills

Dirty Dozen's only prize: bragging rights

Saturday, November 26, 2005

By Moustafa Ayad, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Stephen Cummings has no good reason for riding his bicycle 50 miles up and down the 13 steepest hills in Pittsburgh, turning his legs into angel hair pasta and his lungs into deflated balloons.



Online Graphic

See a map that shows the 13 steepest roads in the Pittsburgh area that a group of cyclists plans to ride.




Racing up cobblestoned slopes, catching what he calls a winter cough --what normal people refer to as bronchitis or pneumonia -- and challenging his heart to race up a hill in Beechview with a grade that is 37 feet per 100 feet of run is an exercise in humility.

Or the first signs of dementia for the 25-year-old bike messenger from Bloomfield.

But despite the obvious pitfalls of testing the body's limits in a sustained bout up and down the city's steepest grades, Mr. Cummings and an expected 40 riders with a disregard for pain, and perhaps a disdain for Bengay, are going to participate in 23rd annual Dirty Dozen bike race today up and over 13 of Pittsburgh's confounding inclines.

"Why go ride 150 miles? I guess you could say that's too far," said Mr. Cummings, who beat out 30 odd riders last year to win the race on his second attempt. "People know the race isn't sanctioned by the racing body, so it doesn't count toward anything except bragging rights."

The race, which was started by brothers Danny and Tom Chew in 1983, has evolved into a litmus test for athletes and a urban challenge among avid bikers across the country and the region.

The 50-mile gauntlet of gears challenges bikers through a baker's dozen of hills -- the steepest being that 37 percent grade on Canton Avenue in Beechview -- and is strictly a race up and down the slopes not in between them. The winner receives points for completing each hill according to how he or she places on that particular leg. The first five climbers of each hill receive points -- first place climbers receive five points -- and the closest to a perfect score of 65 by the end of the race wins.

No one has ever received a perfect score.

"It's the kind of ride that you see and go 'are you kidding me?' " said Jerry Kraynick, owner of Kraynick's Bike Shop Inc. in Garfield and Mr. Cummings' sponsor. "You could do one of these hills in one day, but this takes the worst hills possible and asks you to do them all."

Danny Chew, who is a legend in biking circles for twice winning the transcontinental Race Across America, completing the race in eight days and seven hours with only three hours of sleep a night, calls the race a chance to see Pittsburgh's scenic hills.

Mr. Chew has won the Dirty Dozen -- named after the movie and television series because it sounds better than the Dirty Thirteen -- nine times and knows every nook and cranny of the hills and how to approach the climbs.

The ride doesn't take into account the hills and slopes that come in between the 13 prominent rises. It also doesn't factor in tangibles such as cobble-stone roads and potholes that seem to adorn Pittsburgh streets this time of year like Christmas tree decorations.

"I don't give out prizes," said Mr. Chew. "If you win, you get the prestige of being the best hill climber in Pittsburgh."

And while prestige and bragging rights may push some of these intense bikers to scour the city for its steepest inclines and most demanding rises, some just choose to view the race as what it seems -- crazy.

"You go past some of these guys and think what's wrong with these people," said Mr. Kraynick. "My idea of nice ride is finding the best 13 hills to go downhill."

Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 29, 2005) In the original Nov. 26, 2005 version of this story about the 23rd annual Dirty Dozen bike race, Jerry Kraynick's first name was misspelled.

(Moustafa Ayad can be reached at or 412-263-1731.)