Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sisyphean, But not for Sissies

Pittsburgh has a lot of weird and wonderful things going for it, including an annual event called the “Dirty Dozen” that takes place the Saturday after Thanksgiving. For the past 29 years, a growing number of recreational cyclists have convened to conquer the steepest hills in and around the city—enduring inclement weather and insane terrain in a pure test of physical and mental prowess.


Photo courtesy of Jason Kambitsis, Wired Magazine

For the record, I am not one of these cyclists. I am, however, married to one, which marginally qualifies me to write this article, and I can tell it to you straight: the Dirty Dozen is no joke. But it is, technically, a race, which means that many of the cyclists try to scale these hills as fast as they can—to which I can only reply, “?!?!?!”

Over the course of about 6 hours, participants ride well over 50 miles as they travel from hill to hill and challenge themselves on grades that can approach 37 percent. I can only equate this to trying to drive my 11-year-old, 4-cylinder Honda Civic up a brick wall, which is what Hill #8—Sycamore Street—felt like last year when I delivered a can of Coke and a Clif bar to my husband, Jonathan. For a hot minute I thought maybe I wouldn’t make it, and I would need that Coke and Clif bar for sustenance until someone realized I was missing and the search party found my car tipped over at the bottom of Sycamore. I say “someone” because Jonathan would simply be too exhausted to notice my absence until arising arthritically from his post-DD slumber three days later.

I digress.

As the day progresses, and the riders’ quads quiver and lungs reach near explosion, a spectator like me can’t help but give mad props to any and all with the cojones to scale the Dirty Dozen—or even to try. Fully subscribing to the “no guts, no glory” motto, these cyclists are proof that, like in business, we simply don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re faced with adversity, and more often than not, we are happily surprised by the results—even if we stumble once or twice on the ascent.

Of course, it never hurts to have a little preparation behind you, too. Last year, Jonathan and his friends started training in September just to get through these few November hours, and they’re all experienced riders. So unless you just won the King of the Mountains jersey in the Tour de France, you may want to watch from the sidelines first. Because the Dirty Dozen is a serious mission, and only the strong survive. They may puke once or twice along the way. . . but they survive.

Pittsburgh public television legend Rick Sebak profiled the Dirty Dozen in 2010. Skip ahead to minute 19 for Hill #9—Canton Avenue—to capture the true essence of the Dirty Dozen. (That’s Jonathan clipping out at 20:48 and shattering the dreams of the guy behind him.)

Schlepping the Southside Slopes

U.S. cities with the most public stairways
(100 steps or more each):

1. Pittsburgh, PA (117)
2. Los Angeles, CA (89)
3. Seattle, WA (83)
4. San Francisco, CA (79)

Pittsburgh’s neighborhood boundaries might well have been scribbled out by a toddler, tracing meandering rivers, rail lines, cliff sides, and rolling hills. No wonder most early immigrants dug in deep and stayed put – until they had to get to work. Now tourist attractions, Pittsburgh’s two remaining inclined railways (at least fifteen operated circa 1900) once shuttled steelworkers from their homes on the hillsides to the mills below during the era of Big Steel. Many workers walked when possible, resorting to the steep public stairways – over 700 in all – dotting the city’s slopes.

Nineteen sets of steps used by steelworkers are within walking distance of Akoya’s offices on the Southside, so what could be a better lunch break in autumn than a brisk climb to a new vista? We plan to take on a different set of Southside steps as often as possible, until we’ve conquered all, using the maps at communitywalk.com.

Here are a few of our first photos.