Words and Photos by Brett Rothmeyer
(While I set out to cover as much of the day’s events as possible, I was also tagging along with a friend who was carrying some spare wheels and warm clothes for people in the front of the race. Traditionally the women racing for the overall have raced in the first group but this year was given their own field. The lack of coverage of the women’s field was circumstantial and not intentional.)
On late winter mornings when the rain rapping on the window sile wakes me from warm sleep; my mind still reels in panic from two years as a bike courier in Pittsburgh, PA. The sound reminds me of day-long wet and cold slogs through the city on two wheels. After years away from the job I have decided that the coldest days don’t even compare to mid-’30s and rain. The water seems to find it’s way through every opening despite how tiny in waterproof clothing, leaving you with an endless chill that seems impossible to shake.
Pittsburgh winters are cruel on their best days and on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving annually there is an extra dose of self-delivered cruelty by way of the Dirty Dozen. For over three decades cyclist of all levels and discipline subject themselves to the punishment of the thirteen steepest hills in and around Pittsburgh. As the rain fell hard in the darkness of the early morning as temperatures hovered just above freezing Pittsburgh was proving just how cruel it could be.
Riders huddled under a pavilion or hid in their cars with the heaters running on full blast waiting as long as they could to subject themselves to the elements. What usually ends up being a day of what one can shed and or do without to save weight while tackling the hills, many riders were looking for extra layers to fight off what mother nature was throwing at them.
The familiar high pitched voice of Danny Chew breaks the chatter of pre-race talk. Chew, in a wheelchair after an accident on his bicycle left him paralyzed two years ago addressed the racers and volunteers for the day through his signature megaphone. Chew, who created the race with his brother in 1983, lives for this day, for the competition, and the camaraderie. While the ‘Chewman’ as he is affectionately referred to by friends is no longer able to compete in the race like the past, he has come along way since his injury. Chew’s lifelong goal has been to ride 1 million miles in his lifetime, and he has been able to continue his pursuit by using a handcycle. After grueling physical therapy and slow and steady starts, the endurance obsessed Chew has already competed in the Pittsburgh Marathon and looks to the future to achieve his goal of 1 million miles.
The cold rain continued to come down as the riders tackled the first hills of the day. Riders of the Dirty Dozen traditionally rode as one big group from hill to hill racing to their tops at the sound of a whistle blown by the ride along official, a role usually filled by Danny Chew. Over the years the number of participants has grown so dramatically that the race has been split up into several more manageable groups. The front group is the only group competing for the overall win, while the remaining groups take on the challenge of completing the course, a worthy challenge in itself.
It didn’t take but the few opening hills to sort out who was in it to win it this year. Will Cooper, a native of Pittsburgh, now living in Philadelphia proved early on that he meant business. Cooper while not winning every climb put on a dominant performance in the men’s race taking the overall victory. Last years winner Ian Baun whose arm was in a sling could only look on while racers attacked the cobbled wall of Canton Ave. Stephen Cummings, an 11-time winner of the race, spent most of the race near the back of the field as he has shifted his focus from climbing steep paved climbs on a bicycle to climbing mountains in high in the alpines. Shaena Ulissi won this year’s women’s race. (Traditionally the women competing for the overall ride with the lead men’s group but this year were given their own field, please see disclaimer above.)
In true cruel fashion, this years race was bookended by two beautiful early winter days, sun shining and in the ’50s, which only seemed to exemplify the cold rain of Saturday. A friend messaged me after the day’s event “Pittsburgh builds tough bastards!” It’s hard to argue that statement after watching the Dirty Dozen take place in a daylong cold shower.