Conquering a Pittsburgh Tradition: the Dirty Dozen Bike Race

December 04,2013

The year after I was born, a now-Pittsburgh cycling legend, Danny Chew (aka, the Chewman), started a tradition of riding the 12 steepest hills in the ‘Burgh, which gradually found its position fixed on the calendar on the first Saturday following Thanksgiving.  The hills rise at grades in excess of 20% and up to 37% on Canton Avenue, the steepest road in the world. From the bottom, they look more like brick walls than city streets.

Last year was my introduction to the excruciatingly painful yet exhilarating mega-group ride.  Hundreds came out this year, despite the potential for icy roads, frozen toes and post-climb “jello leg” syndrome.  Among them, a handful of other Palermo’s: my cousin Angelina was racing along with her mom and dad, Ron and Cheryl.  My cousin Dan was joined by Aunt Patty and Uncle Charlie to round out the pep crew.  Patty George,my PHenomenal Captain, was also there to tackle the hills for her first official Dirty Dozen.  She had completed the course in a practice run just weeks ago and was primed for battle. Really well primed, let me tell you!


The weather was bearable and hovering around freezing, but the roads weren’t too slick or salty.  It seemed like it was going to be a good day. Patty, myself and another lady rider, Erin, were all neck-and-neck on the leader

board through the first half of the race. We were having a great time, although I had a second battle going on behind the scenes: me vs. my stomach. I am not sure if it was a byproduct of the dinner party Jeremy and I went to the night before, or a too-heavy breakfast + too-hard of effort combo on the first few hills.  I was suffering pretty bad after my huge effort to win Rialto (“Pig hill”), and I tried to, you know, pull the trigger… but nothing worked. I honestly considered stopping the race and joining the cheering squad, but a little voice inside me asked:

“What if you get nauseous during RAAM? Are you going to quit then? Do the patients quit when it gets hard for them?”

Of course, the answer had to be no.


So, I pedaled on to the next hill and hoped I might start to feel better.  To my good fortune, the top of Rialto was the worst I felt, and my stomach woes lessened as the day went on.

Then, the Beast, Canton Avenue, decided to take its sacrifice.

Last year, I made it to the top of Canton’s cobblestone apex on my first attempt.  This year, it took me four.  My first try was foiled by another rider who stopped dead right in front of me (no biggie). My second and third foiled by some major “brain farts”– I was in excessively hard gear ratios by accident–the price of my negligence resulted in one crash and one series of side-ways hops off the side of the road. I was grateful I didn’t flip backwards.
Canton conquered!

Canton conquered!

My fourth attempt was golden. I got a great position with plenty of space between myself and the previous riders, I had spent some time observing the best “line” up the hill (stay to the right!!!) and I was in all the right gears.  I put down as many Watts  on my pedals as I could to fight gravity, and made my way up the hill past all of the cheering spectators.  Just after I crested the hill, my big, exuberant sigh of relief was echoed by the “snap, clunck, cluck” sound of my rear derailleur bouncing off of my wheel spokes.


Danny Chew tried  to radio for some emergency help from the Big Bang Bicycles guys, but there were no spare derailleurs to be found. Instead, Danny and Ron Palermo leaped into action.  Before I knew it, pedals and bags were flying off one bike and onto the next.  Cheryl graciously loaned me her cross bike while she traded in for her back-up mountain bike, and we were all, once again, off to the races.  Everyone except Patty, that is, who had the unfortunate circumstance of ripping off her derailleur half-way up the cobble-stoned menace.  She ran her bike to West Liberty Cycles and got it fixed, but so much time had lapsed that she found herself having to drop out of the race.  A HUGE bummer because she was absolutely killing it.

During the “neutral ride” between Canton and the next DD hill, I found my loaner bike was ghost-shifting. This is the phenomenon where the back cassette gear changes without the rider actually hitting the shifter.  Luckily it was always shifting into an easier gear ratio, so it wasn’t the worst of all things.  In fact, Cheryl’s cross bike offered an easier gear ratio than my broken Cervelo had, and this turned out to be my salvation.  I was able to do most of the climbing from the seated position, which resulted in much less arm fatigue than standing (because leg fatigue isn’t enough). By sitting, I was avoiding the near triceps-explosion that I felt coming when I was climbing up Logan (my arch nemesis); there, I was climbing so slow and pulling up so hard on my handlebars that I did a track stand (stand-still), followed by a wheelie (front wheel left the earth for the air), before I moved an inch forward.  Before I crested Logan, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cry or die. Somehow I managed to avoid both.

At some point, we were on top of some hill and I found an official meeting of the one-geared men. I asked how many hills we had left. I honestly didn’t know. They said ONE.

One. The sweetest number I have ever heard in my entire existence. It seemed, despite all of the doubts that had flooded my brain earlier in the day, that I was going to finish. I remembered the last hill from my inaugural 2012 Dirty Dozen- it was a long grinder, no doubt, and the finale was definitely a gradient to be reckoned with… but surely, after all that I had been through, the thought of it being my last effort would be enough to pull me through.

We turned a corner to line up for the ascent and…

I felt some weird grinding and new resistance against the pavement.

I pulled off to the side of the road.  I spun my back wheel- it was spinning just fine. Then I realized the back tire was flat.

Not the worst of news. I hadn’t

Tens of passing riders asked if I was okay and offered their assistance. I sent them off with a smile-I had a CO2 cartridge, this was going to be fixed in no time.heard a large popping noise that would have signaled a giant gash in the tire. Maybe it was a leak that finally reached the critical point.

Except I couldn’t get my cartridge to expel the ride-saving gaseous substance.   Was it empty?

Next guy asks if I need help and I bat my frost-covered eye lashes. “Yes, please!!”

So, he grabs his cartridge and I see the tire bloat back up. Good to go. I figure I’m no longer in the running for points on the hill- I was passed by a lot of woman while I was sidelined. Regardless, there was still work to be done, and the faster I summitted, the sooner I could retreat to a warmer, flatter world.

I start to roll toward the base of the hill but immediately felt extra “close” to the road once again; the tire wasn’t holding air. I asked some other riders behind me if I’m riding on the rim, and if I’ll ruin the wheel if I keep pedaling. They said I was flat, but it shouldn’t ruin the wheel.  I nod my head in thanks and kick up the pace. Time to get’er done.

When I hit the steepest section I realized that the traction on a flatted out tire isn’t so great. I have to make my pedal stroke perfectly even to avoid skidding out. One more hill.

I heard everyone cheering and put my head down. I focused only on taking my foot from the top of each pedal stroke to the bottom. Just keep moving, keep holding on. One more hill.

The official, Carol, yelled “Just to me!”

I heard Patty’s voice cheering me on. I heard Danny giving one last wail.  A few more strokes, and my quads found their salvation.

I was thrilled that I had finished, despite the nausea, ripped derailleur and flat tire. I found my family and friends and and an enthusiastic Patty at the top and was told that I had actually won the women’s category, despite my late start to the final round!

Angelina rolled up the final steep shortly after me, putting herself in 4th place with an amazing finish.

There were a few miles of road between the final climb and the police station where my car was parked, where the day began so many hours ago.  Instead of trying to swap out the tube on Cheryl’s bike, I asked Patty if I could borrow her Cervelo to get back to the start/finish and take it all full circle. Third bike is the charm.


By the time we rolled down the final descent, the sky was turning to black, and a smile was frozen on my face as much from the realization of a job well done as was from the sudden drop in temperature.  I had taken a heck of a lot of thoughts of “I can’t” and turned them into one big “I did.”


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