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November 19, 2014
by James Knox


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Preparing for battle

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When you prepare for battle, you must sharpen your sword and polish your shield. I just made that up, but it applies to most things. Get your gear in order before doing something that depends on your gear as much as your mind.

When gearing up to shoot “Monday Night Football,” a sports shooter would use canned air and cloths to clean his lenses, front and back. Get the proper clothing and extras you might need just in case.

When gearing up for a bike race, the checklist is different but the effect is the same. Very few sports rely on gear as much as cycling. One bad choice could cost you dearly. Maybe bobsledding is the exception, but who the heck recreationally bobsleds in Pittsburgh?

I’ve been going over my preparations for the impending Dirty Dozen, a bike race that pits man versus hills in an open-air battle over Pittsburgh’s almost-famous terrain. To climb six of the nastiest hills in the ‘Burgh is tough, but to hit all 13 of them in one day requires some thought as well as some damn strong legs.

I have been sitting up at night counting teeth in cassettes and cranks to get to sleep. I have a dilemma.

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I own two road bikes. One is a new carbon road-racing bike. The other is a 30-year-old touring bike. They present two different tacks. The race bike has a “racy” set-up. The front crank is a double, meaning it has two chain rings to choose from. One has 53 teeth, the other has 39 teeth. The rear cassette runs from 11-25 teeth. This is good for most hills and an extra gear to scream on the flats and down hills. It’s meant to go fast, fast, fast.

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My other bike weighs almost 50 percent more. It has a steel fork and an aluminum frame. Its crank is the knee-friendly Shimano Biopace ovoid-shaped rings. It is a triple, meaning there are three rings to choose from. The biggest is a 50-tooth ring. The middle ring is a 42 and the smallest is a 28-toothed “granny gear.”

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I have been waiting for a new cassette to come in the mail from the UK. I think the boat is a little slow — I ordered it the day before Halloween. They must be on “holiday” or whatever it is they call slacking off in Europe. What’s coming in the mail my buddy Steve keeps referring to as “Her Majesty’s Cassette.” I’m not sure if that means its arrival is up to some inbred Brit or if it ever gets here, it will be announced with a trumpet fanfare.

This is a very rare cassette, I’m told. A 12-30 Ultegra 6700 10-speed is its official title. It might not make as big a stir as the Beatles’ arrival, but I might scream and cry and faint if it ever gets here.

So, what’s keeping me up a night is, do I use the slick, light bike with the slightly easier British cassette? Or do I ride tried and true “Old Blue” with the super granny?

I’m hitting some DD hills today after work with Old Blue to get some perspective. Is it cheating to use a granny? I’m torn.

Maybe the Queen will know the answer. She is, after all, the world’s most famous granny.

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November 17, 2014
by James Knox


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Did you get the elevator or the shaft?

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 (Playoff beard? No, that’s a Dirty Dozen beard at the top of Logan)

The training took a turn yesterday. My buddy Steve and I hit six of the 13 Dirty Dozen’s hills and much truth was learned. We learned that even devastating leg cramps can be overcome. We learned that Steve should tighten his clipless pedals. I also learned that the race itself will probably not be “fun.” Let me explain.

The rules state that if you put your foot down on any hill … you have to head to the bottom and start it over again. Steve’s foot came out of his pedal near the top of Rialto. He put his foot down, cursed under his breath, remounted then finished the rise. Um, that counts in my book.

I had devastating almost-gonna-call-a-ride-home leg cramps at the lower slopes of High/Seavey in Etna. As I sat on the ground trying to figure out how to stretch the inside muscle on my leg, a local walked by with his dog and said, “I climb that hill every day on my bike.” We looked at him and blinked when he said his bike was a motorcycle. “That hill is a (insert colloquialism referring to female canines).”

Once the cramps let down after some intense physiotherapy, (I hammered on my vastus medialis for ten minutes with my fist shouting, “Why?!?”) we mounted the long grueling climb from Etna into Millvale without incident. We remarked that almost every hill has a cemetery near the top. We wondered if that was for convenience.

Steve also remarked that an IT guy and a picture taker were no help when a real physiologist was required. All I brought was a granola bar and a multi-tool, bro!

He said that we at least finished 5.8 of the 6 hills we tried Sunday. IT guys and their numbers.

The road was long and grueling; did I mention the grueling part? I wouldn’t call this fun. I am a recreation biker. I ride for the enjoyment of riding. The Dirty Dozen takes riding into a superhuman feat of exertion and pain tolerance. We decided this would be our first and last run at this the Baker’s Dozen of Doom. The ride will be memorable, but fun? Probably not, but after a rough day where I had to walk the last few feet of Logan (one of the three hardest in the race) my spirits were down. Ribs and beer for dinner helped a lot.

Some days you just don’t have it. Or, as Steve said, “Sometimes you get the elevator and sometimes you get the shaft.”

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November 12, 2014
by James Knox


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What’s In A Name? A Lot

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(That’s a picture of James Knox Polk, not the Bard, FYI.)

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. — Bill Shakespeare

In church this Sunday the sermon was about Joseph, AKA “Barnabas,” and the origin of names and nicknames. More precisely, what would yours be in light of your walk with God?

It got me thinking about my name and what it means.

James Knox

The meaning of James is listed as “supplanter.” Not only is this my favorite book in the Bible but, duh, it’s the greatest name of all time. Favorite show as a kid: ”James at 15” starring Lance Kerwin.  Favorite band: James. Favorite grocery chain: Jamesway. James Earl Jones, Jesse James  … LeBron and the the most presidents (6) are named James.

Enough. Now with Knox, the meaning is an old Scottish Gaelic word: “cnocc,” meaning “hill or hillock.” Fort Knox, Knox Overstreet from Dead Poets Society, Knox Gelatine, President James Knox Polk … I could go on.

So to tie it together, my name really means Overthrower of Hills. I love it. I need to lose about 50 pounds to really have the BMI to be a “Hill Killer,” but I’ll take it.

The weather is turning colder and the training rides for the Dirty Dozen continue.

I’ll take any advantage I can get.

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November 10, 2014
by James Knox


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It’s NOT Training, It’s Recon

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Training for the Dirty Dozen, a fall race up 13 of Pittsburgh’s toughest and steepest hills in a 50-mile loop, is done sort of sheepishly. To train is to admit that these hillocks are tougher than you and deserve respect. (They are and they do.) Serious racers just show up and hope their season has been long or short enough to give them the advantage. (Mine wasn’t and wasn’t.)

So, while out for a recon ride a few weeks ago, there were a few awkward looks between those of us hitting the hills on the list, knowing that if we didn’t know what we were in for, we weren’t showing up.

My intrepid training partner Steve and I planned a day filled with about 30 miles and three of the 13 hills a few weeks ago.

Welsh Way was first. It took us a while to even find it, stopping every once in a while in the South Side Slopes to look on our phones and GPS devices. Welsh Way is a dead-end street so we had to climb it then ride back down. I’m assuming this is done in waves like Rialto Street for safety. It’s a short, punchy climb. It’s tough but not killer. We get to the top together and Steve says, “Wow, you’re doing this on a double. You got stronger legs than me.” Flattery makes my ego now fully inflated.

Steve is a practical rider who favors long distances over speed. He uses a triple chain-ring crank sometimes called a “Granny Gear.” He calls it his “Justin Gear,” as in, “Justin Case you can’t get up the hill without it.”

As I respect his power and handling and head for cycling, I of course now think I am the greatest. “Damn right my legs are strong!” I ponder to myself.

Next up, Berry to Holt. It’s really three progressively horrible steep grinds while dodging traffic. Steve and I start together but halfway I am so maxed out trying to tow my inflated head up the steep grade I pop a wheelie and have to regroup. At the top he is wondering which car hit me while trying to refocus his eyes back to seeing one road before him. I roll into a driveway and clip in and finish a little ticked off at my ease at taking the ego bait. Sucker.

Finally we head to what will be the final climb of the daylong race. In Hazelwood we find Flowers Avenue and Tesla Street. I think we have figured it out now. Start in the easiest gear you have and go slow and easy. If you have anything left at the top, it’s a friggin’ miracle.

The race ends unceremoniously in the middle of nowhere. (Sorry if that’s your street. It’s somewhere to you, I’m sure.) At a cyclone fence surrounding a water tower Steve ponders the ride home after the race. I tell him flatly, “If we make it this far, we’re rolling down that hill to a bar and having the wives pick us up!”

Indeed.

I do seem to notice that very many of the roads in this race end at cemeteries. It must make it easier. You just roll in before keeling over, I guess.

Two weeks to go. Gotta ride.

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October 17, 2014
by James Knox


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The Dirty Dozen: My 13-Step Program

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Riding a bike in Pittsburgh is like drinking heavily.

More on that in a minute.

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As I casually train for the Dirty Dozen race this fall, I have been trying to put a minimum of 1,800 feet of climbing in every ride. That’s easier said than done. Even on a shallow climb, I am banging as big a gear as I can manage. The utmost pain, the utmost gain.

The DD is the annual victory lap of the road-racing season in the ‘Burgh. It is a baker’s dozen of the steepest climbs in the area connected by a 50-mile loop through the Steel City.

My ride the other day was confined to North Park and all its shortcomings. You can climb like crazy if you know where to look there, though. Walter Road on the big ring is fun. Babcock, Kummer Road and North Ridge can be great for a puncheur like myself. Any port in a storm.

The real training requires hitting the actual roads in the race, some of which stretch more than a mile in length and reach over 30% in grade. On a dry day, you can loose all moisture in your throat from breathing so heavily while dragging your butt up a road like Sycamore on Mount Washington. You don’t just wear the mask of pain, you have purchased the entire Halloween costume.

Which brings me to my weird analogy. How is riding a bike in Pittsburgh like being a heavy drinker? Both involve a sick addiction, but it’s all about tolerance. How much pain you can endure is the key. Good fitness helps. Strong legs are a must. But you must build up a tolerance. The mental capacity to tolerate pain must be developed slowly over hours and miles of up, up, up. You develop mind games to keep yourself focused. It is a whole different ball game. I love it.

I am not built like a climber, either. A puncheur is a French cycling term for someone who likes punchy, short and steep climbs. That’s me. I am in no position to ever win the Dirty Dozen. That dude is about 5’7” and 130lbs. I am built more like a linebacker than a cyclist. More like a track cyclist. But turning left and riding flat does not sound fun to me.

Once you are hooked on hills, you can’t just have one, either.

But, unlike drinking too much … climbing is good for you.

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September 25, 2014
by James Knox


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Mid-Life Crisis

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Today is my birthday. Big deal. I’m 41. According to USA Cycling, I have been 41 since Jan. 1, so it’s kind of anticlimactic. Everything has hurt all over since I turned 40. Different day, same aches.

Professional racers lasting through the grueling international circuit until their 40s are rare and something to be lauded. Christopher Horner is my age. He was a General Classification favorite in this year’s Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) and Tour de France.

Jens Voigt just turned 43 and broke the hour record after ending a season of typical aggressive attacking like he’s a hungry U23 trying to break into a pro squad.

Me? I raced 7 or 8 races at the Washington Boulevard Oval. I got as high as 7th place one night.

OK, it’s not even close. They are sponsored pros. I won a T shirt against a bunch of dentists. But the point is, I’m feeling like a young man on a bike. I could be having a mid-life crisis and buying a Corvette and growing a ponytail, but I’m riding my bike. A lot.

So what should I do? Race some more. The next big cycling event for Pittsburgh is the Dirty Dozen. Danny Chew created this monster of a bike race that has achieved a cult status. The pitch: ride a baker’s dozen of Pittsburgh’s toughest hills with 300 of your closest rivals. Sounds fun? I know it’s a painfest. Men from the boys kind of stuff. Most of the 300 don’t finish.

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(Canton Ave.)

The roads are steep here. Last year I photographed the race with Andrew Russell on his motorcycle like real pro cycling photographers. And I thought it might be fun. I’m still looking for an excuse to not do it.

My intrepid buddy Steve and I have been reconnoitering the hills on the list and ticking them off one by one. Go to dannychew.com to see the list. The steepest is Canton Avenue in Beechview. At a 38% grade, it is the steepest hill in the country. Danny Chew would argue that it is the steepest in the world. Some sheep path in New Zealand is allegedly 39%. Whatever. Most of the other streets top out at 28-30% at their steepest. These are the roads that have steps for sidewalks.

You also ride 50 miles just to get to these monsters that take several minutes to climb. This is crazy, right? It definitely sounds like a midlife crisis to me.

Bring it. I’ll grow the ponytail. You bring the cowbell.

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September 13, 2014
by James Knox


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Pro Pittsburgh

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The Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Places conference has inspired me. I have ridden my bike almost every day for the past few weeks. I’ve ridden so much I need a doughnut. The kind you sit on, not the kind you eat.

It might be because of my fondness for riding on the rivet on training rides or just the sheer amount of miles in spandex-enhanced jeans, but I might need a break.

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And what did Gil Penalosa say at his keynote address to the Pro Walk/ Pro Bike/Pro Places conference? He said every trip begins and ends with walking. You walk to your car, walk to the bus, walk to your bike. He has a point. That must be why “walking” is at the front of the long-winded moniker of the international conference that Pittsburgh was privileged to host this past week.

So Friday, I tried walking. What a waste of leg power walking is. You go so slowly. I like to go fast. But I’m in no hurry. It’s a quiet day. No need to hurry. I have some assignments Downtown so I meander to the T across from our building and hitch a ride. Why not? It’s free and I am an intermodal type of guy these days. I shoot my assignments and head out on a feature hunt through Downtown. Slow and low, that is the tempo, the Beastie Boys say. The smells, the sights of a bustling major metro city on the move. My brother, a lawyer in Erie, always is taken aback by the “big city-ness” of Pittsburgh. It does have that big-city feel. But it’s way nicer than NYC. Nobody really honks here. People will say hi if you do. It’s the perfect mix of small and big town.

My town.

It feels good to stretch my legs and get some work done at the same time. Pittsburgh is on the move. I’ve seen some big changes in the past 20-plus years I have called Pittsburgh my home. More and more, my choice has been proven to be a good one.

I guess I am pro-walk, pro-bike and pro-places. As long as the place is Pittsburgh.

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September 11, 2014
by James Knox


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It Only Takes A Spark

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The Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference closed out with Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities. He was on fire. The fired-up Colombian crammed a two-hour symposium into a rapid-fire half-hour of entertainment. He outlined the path to making cities more bike-friendly and livable. He was on fire … really. His standing ovation was interrupted by this announcement, “A fire emergency has been reported in the building. Please evacuate the building and the garage by the nearest exit …”

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A thousand or so of us did. As we stood around blinking in the sunlight, the conference director, Mark Plotz from the Project for Public Spaces, was walking around shaking everyone’s hand and saying, “See you in 2016 in Vancouver?” A defeated smile was on his lips.

He was supposed to give the news during his closing remarks following Penalosa’s keynote. Tough break. Most people mingled and hatched plans for lunch.

The fire was actually a cleaning staff member who accidentally hit the fire alarm. But this conference was no mistake. It fired up everyone to make their places more livable and hospitable to people, not just cars.

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As I rolled back to the office via the protected bike lane down Penn Avenue, I thought this conference might just be the spark to get this town on its way to its third renaissance.

I will stop with the fire metaphors now. Just keep pedaling.

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September 10, 2014
by James Knox


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Reality Check

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The news was pretty messed up today.

I had planned on covering my day from two wheels but some dudes with guns had some other ideas.

I got a call to get over to the Allegheny County Jail because some 14-year-old escaped from custody and hid on a hillside; he was recaptured near the Manor Building just before 8 a.m. And me with my bike still on the roof rack.

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Then the call comes in for a shooting in Beltzhoover. I get over there and car windows are blown out and shell casings litter the ground. Turns out a teenager was shot while walking up a hill with another teenager. Another person, coming from the other direction, opened fire on the two and then fled.

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Another shooting in Braddock. This time it was a homicide. The kid was 16.

I need to get on my bike. I roll through Downtown trying to see if any Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Places people are out and about. I ride up through the new bike lane all the way to the end in the Strip. Um, it just kinda stops there. Turned around and headed to Market Square. I can’t get any pictures of people talking at podiums in breakout sessions. One guy from the convention told me he had created the hashtag #plannerspointing.

So I get all my pictures in order and head home.

I put my city bike on its hook in the garage. Pull on my spandex and grab my race bike and head on out. Two and a half hours of cathartic pain.

I love being on the bike. Nothing clears your head as much as lactic acidosis.

It gets me thinking of the city’s 10-year plan. “A cycling Mecca.” That’s what the mayor wants for Pittsburgh. It seems he’s moving fast. Tom Murphy and Luke Ravenstahl do deserve a lot of credit, too. (Only Tommy was an actual cyclist, though.)

Peduto is moving fast. Kind of like me this afternoon. But I wonder if after all the people from the convention leave and they roll up the temporary bike lanes on the bridges, will this town be moving with the kinetic momentum that this event has put in motion?

We’ll see.

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September 9, 2014
by James Knox


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Mayoral Advice

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My day started with the best intentions. Bike mounted on my bumper, I headed into work. I promptly got sent to a truck that spilled joint compound all over the Irwin Interchange of the Turnpike. Oops. Tens of people will have to use toothpaste to fill the little holes in their apartment walls so as not to break the terms of their lease. All kidding aside, I hope the driver is OK. I got a pretty cool photo out of it, at least.

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I parked at the office and rode my bike over to the first full day of the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Places convention. They really need a better name for this thing. I mean, it’s like a bad URL.

As the sessions let out, I enjoyed a people-watching extravaganza. It was like “Parks and Rec” meets the J.Jill catalog. The Trib’s reporter said that these were the most slender people she had ever seen in one place. It was like Amsterdam in Pittsburgh. Over 1,000 people who I was positive I had something in common with. Skinny jeans!

They were assembling for a panel discussion of four mayors from Memphis, Tenn.; Philadelphia; Morgantown, W.V., and our own mayor, Bill Peduto. It was shaping up to be a weird episode of “The View” when Mayor Peduto mentioned his love of bourbon while lamenting checking his Twitter feed at 10:30 at night for hateful comments from the anti-bike Tweeters.

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The mayors all agreed that making your city a cycling-friendly destination was a hot-button issue. Memphis mayor AC Wharton said that people wondered why he could put paint on the ground but not pull the weeds. Mayor Michael Nutter from Philadelphia said, “(Being a mayor) is tough business. If you want someone to love you every day, go work in a pet store.”

They all expressed their passion for making streets designed centuries ago safe for modern transportation. The goal: to make cities livable again. Wharton talked of putting bike lanes through minority neighborhoods in Memphis to stress that this was for everyone, not just the “spandex crowd.”

Hey, I am a member of the spandex crowd. But, it got me thinking. These bike lanes aren’t for people like me. If everyone felt as confident and at home as I do on a bike, we wouldn’t need dedicated bike lanes. But having 1 percent of your town using bicycles for transportation is unfair. Bring it to the people. Make it safe. You shouldn’t have to put your life in danger to ride your bike. Riding a car is statistically the least safe way to travel anyway. I’ve had several nasty accidents in a car but never had one on a bike. If biking is going to put Pittsburgh back on the map then, I’m all for it.

Let the people bike!

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