Why Would Someone Climb Pittsburgh's Steepest Hills On A Healthy Ride Bike? To Prove It Can Be Done

Nov 24, 2017

Bike share bicycles, like Pittsburgh’s Healthy Ride, are not, by any stretch of the imagination, performance vehicles.

They’re rugged and designed for the masses to use and abuse. And at 37 pounds, they’re heavy.

Riders sit upright, a more comfortable position for most casual cyclists, but not conducive to going very fast or climbing steep hills. And the gear ratio – basically how much you can advance the wheels with each rotation of the pedals – in the lowest of the bike’s seven gears is an unforgiving 38x18, a ratio of more than 2 to 1. The bigger the ratio, the harder it is to push the pedals.

Simply put, a Healthy Ride is not the ideal bicycle for climbing 13 of Pittsburgh’s steepest hills in the annual Dirty Dozen competition, held every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

By contrast, 11-time Dirty Dozen winner Stephen Cummings rides a 16-pound road bike with aggressive geometry that keeps his center of gravity low and allows him to more effectively propel himself up hills. His pedals actually connect to his shoes, which means he is both pulling up and pushing down on the pedals with every rotation. And his gear ratio is 34x27, a little more than 1 to 1, which allows him to pedal more easily on steep inclines.

Jeremiah Sullivan, 30, of West View, owns a bike like that, but he’s not planning on riding it for this year’s Dirty Dozen. Instead, he’ll once again attempt the grueling, approximately 50-mile bike ride on a Healthy Ride.

When asked why he wants to do this, he shrugs.

Jeremiah Sullivan practices riding Canton Ave. in Beechview on a Healthy Ride bicycle on Wednesday, November 15, 2017.
Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

“To prove it can be done. To prove it to myself," Sullivan said. "There was never anything I was exceptionally good at. I was decently intelligent … I was always a nice person, so I had a lot of friends and I had no issues, but there was never anything where I was so much better at something quantifiable."

That is, until he began riding Healthy Ride bicycles in 2015. Sullivan had already begun a fitness and weight loss journey that February, and had lost 50 pounds through changing his diet alone. But he was looking for a way to become more active, especially on the hour-long lunch break mandated by his employer.

The first time he rode a Healthy Ride, he and a co-worker pedaled from their Strip District offices to The Point.

“I thought it was so crazy you could get to The Point and back on your lunch break,” Sullivan said. “From there, I knew that it was going to be an avenue for me.”

Sullivan began branching out, exploring downtown, riverfront trails, biking through Millvale and Brighton Heights, all on his lunch break. Eventually, he began challenging himself to rides some of the Dirty Dozen hills, starting with Rialto Street, which ascends from Route 28 into Troy Hill. That’s where he got the idea of doing the full race on a Healthy Ride bicycle.

“Jeremiah is kind of like a bike share celebrity around the office,” said Healthy Ride Marketing Director Erin Potts. “We’re just so impressed that someone would want to take on something like this on one of our bikes.”

Healthy Ride is letting Sullivan use bikes for free during his training rides and on race day.

Last year, Sullivan kept pace with other Dirty Dozen riders on the first eight hills. Then came Canton Avenue, a cobblestone ascent in Beechview that, at 37 degrees, is among the world’s steepest paved streets.

On his best attempt, he made it two-thirds of the way up the hill, but a cramp in his leg forced him back down to try again.

“I was in good shape to make it, and then we wouldn’t have to be here right now,” Sullivan said during a recent practice ride at Canton Avenue. “It would have all been behind me.”

Eventually he walked up Canton and moved on to the next hill, Boustead Street, less than a mile away. After pedaling up it on his second attempt, his legs once again cramped and he could barely stand up. Deflated, he called his wife for a pick-up.

“I’m kind of mad that I didn’t just continue on and just go to each hill and go to the after party, but I was pretty upset, I was pretty tired,” he said. “I just got in the car with my kids, put on a brave face and went home.”

This year will be different, said Sullivan. He’s been training, and so far has completed every hill but Canton Avenue on a Healthy Ride bicycle. Earlier this month, he rode all the hills on his own bicycle.

Sullivan said he won’t let Canton get the best of him this year, even if he doesn’t make it all the way up. He plans to give it one go on a regular Healthy Ride. If that doesn’t work, Healthy Ride staff will be on hand with a bike specially outfitted with pedals that have clips, which will allow Sullivan both pull up and push down on the pedals with each rotation.

“I think it’s possible,” he said confidently. Then, more quietly, “I hope it’s possible.”

And, he said, no matter what happens, he’ll continue on and make it the after party.