Uphill or Down?

I am always on the lookout for a new way to add adventure and exercise to my life. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy running but sometimes I wonder if there isn’t something else that I could be doing. My husband likes to bike so cycling adventures frequently catch my eye. Recently I came across two that astounded me.

Most runners that I know hate hills. In fact, many of them will go out of their way to NOT have to run up a hill. The cyclists competing in the “Dirty Dozen” bike race in Pittsburgh make all those anti-hill runners look like a bunch of wimps. The Dirty Dozen is an informal (i.e., no entry fee) race up 13 of the most grueling hills around Pittsburgh. The race has been going on for the last 33 years – always the Saturday after Thanksgiving. What surprises me the most is that each year more and more people show up to do the race. While the route is only 55 miles, the climbs up the Pittsburgh hills will kick the butts of even the most experienced cyclists. There is one hill on the course with a 37 percent grade that the city claims may be the steepest paved urban street in the world. The hills are so steep that it is not unusual for bikers to fall over as they try to climb them.

I grew up riding a bike in Pittsburgh. I remember riding my bike from my home in the suburbs into downtown Pittsburgh. It was a great ride downhill into the city. I barely pedaled after I crested the hill, though I was riding the brakes a bit at some places. Coming back home was a different story – I never pedaled so much in my life and my thighs were burning. From my firsthand experience biking in Pittsburgh, I am amazed that people travel from all over the country to tackle the Pittsburgh hills two days after feasting on Thanksgiving dinner. Purposely seeking out hills to bike up sounds a bit nutty to me but if everything was just smooth, flat road, life wouldn’t be as interesting or challenging.

Cyclists who prefer going down hill can head to South America and Bolivia’s Yungas Road. The 35-mile road connects La Paz in the Andes Mountains to the Yangas rainforest area, descending 11,000 feet along the way. Much of the road is only 10 feet wide – for two-way traffic too – and unpaved. There are no guard rails and drop-offs of up to 2,000 feet. The weather conditions can make traveling this road even more dangerous – rain, fog and runoff during the rainy season, rockfalls and dust that limits visibility in the summer.

As one might expect, 200-300 people were killed in accidents along the road each year, resulting in the road being called “Death Road”. The road was cited by the Inter-American Development Bank as the most dangerous road in the world and funding was secured to build a safer road. The new road was opened in 2007 and took most of the traffic with it. That was when bikers from all over the world started showing up, attracted to the challenge of riding down Death Road. There are about 30 tour companies in La Paz that organize bike trips down Death Road. The names of the tour companies give you a sense of what sort of challenge awaits – Mayhem, Vertigo, Black Widow, and Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Every year more bikers come to take on Death Road. Bikers haven’t fared any better than people in cars, trucks, and buses. Over 22 bikers have died since 1998.

I know a few bikers who would probably love to tackle Death Road. I will pass on this challenge. Just watching videos of people biking down Death Road makes me uncomfortable. Climbing up the Dirty Dozen has more appeal than zooming down an unpaved road with sheer drop offs. You can always hop off your bike and walk up the hill, though that seems to defeat the purpose. Come to think of it – I will stick to my running shoes.

I found this interesting video by WQED (the PBS station in Pittsburgh) about the Dirty Dozen bike race. I guarantee you won’t complain about biking up another hill after you watch this.


You have to see video of biking down Death Road to appreciate how scary it really is.

I thought this BBC Top Gear episode where they went up Death Road was amusing but I still don’t want to go there.