This post is a break from what we usually discuss here, and is very long to boot. Many regular readers may want to skip it. As noted recently, I returned home to Seattle last month for a few days; at that time, I promised a full report on the Seattle-to-Portland (STP) ride, the event which had been the primary purpose of my trip. It's taken me this long to sit down and put that report together. I write such a report after every major cycling event; I am sharing this one on the blog for anyone out there who may be interested in my experiences and who may want to learn from my mistakes and observations. You'll note the clipped style (many sentence fragments) is also quite different from what I usually post.
A couple of quick notes up front: I was an avid cyclist when I was younger, but have been away from the sport for many years. This year's STP was a personal challenge, to see if at age 40 I could get back in shape and again hang with the pack. My first STP was the 1984 two-day ride, which I did at age 15 with a good friend. I came back the next year and did the one-day ride, and then was totally hooked on that version of the event. For me personally, it was actually easier to pull through and do 200 miles in a single day than it is to ride 100 miles, sleep who-knows-where (usually a gym floor), then get up and ride another 100 miles with full body soreness. Also, given how large the event has now grown, I'd frankly rather be sharing the roads with 2,000 people than 8,000 people (which is the rough division between one-day and two-day riders). This wasn't an issue in 1984, when there were only 1,800 riders total.
Anyhow, I did the one-day STP in 1985-1989, 1992-1994, and 1996. After that, between distance and family and work obligations, it became impossible to travel to Seattle for the event. To put the 13 year break in perspective for you STP veterans: the last time I did STP, we were not only still starting in the Kingdome parking lot...but there still was a Kingdome. Family and work obligations eventually got to the point where I couldn't even train for cycling; I did my last double century ride while living in California in 1999, and then basically hung up the bike for many years. Only in the last few years have I discovered the pure joy of tandem cycling, with my kids serving as stokers; they have allowed me to again become a good cyclist while remaining a good father. I still do plenty of training alone, on my solo bike, but riding with the kids has been essential for rediscovering the sport. I highly recommend it for anyone who's wanting to ride more, but is also concerned about spending time with growing children.
On to the ride report itself:
Overall a wonderful ride, with nearly perfect weather. I was in good shape, and felt good most of the way. I was concerned because my longest training ride was only 80 miles, but 1,360 solo miles and 440 miles with kids on tandems seems to have been enough to make up for it. The weather was a little too warm, but better than being a little too cold. The temperatures topped out in the mid-80s by afternoon, but were very comfortable up until then. Best of all: we had a tailwind pretty much the whole time we were in Oregon. Couldn’t have asked for much better conditions, or a much nicer day on the bike. Sure don't envy the two-riders, who had a chilly drizzle for Day Two.
I shipped my old Bianchi to R+E Cycles, and they assembled it and did a full midseason overhaul before I arrived in Seattle. The guys at R+E are awesome, and I highly recommend them. They did a complete drivetrain cleaning and adjustment, trued the wheels, replaced all cables, re-wrapped the handlebars, etc. Definitely needed the service.
For gearing, I was running a 52-42-30 triple in the front and a 12x19 eight speed straight block cluster in the rear. This is perfect gearing for Michigan, but was only boarderline acceptable for STP. I never had to push the bike up a hill, but there were several times I wished I had something lower than 30 x 19.
Stayed at the Travelodge in the University District, just up the street from the start line. Began at 4:45 sharp, and was in the very first group released from the start. Weather was comfortable at the start; wore shorts, STP 96 jersey, and an old long sleeve t-shirt under the jersey. Used a flashing red taillight for the first 25 miles or so, but a headlight was not necessary.
I was amazed at the size of the ride. There were literally always other riders with me. The first 24 miles were screaming fast, and I arrived at the REI food stop in Kent after just an hour and 16 minutes. Used the restroom, filled with water, and got back out on the course after just five minutes or so. I did okay on “The Hill;” I had a gear that was just low enough, and it felt good to stand on the pedals and climb.
Spanaway was an awesome stop, with outstanding service from local kids, but the restrooms were way across a wide field. Spent more time at Spanaway than I’d anticipated, but that was okay. My goal was to finish the ride feeling strong, rather than finish as fast as possible. Taking a little extra time at rest areas was part of that strategy, and I made a point of not hurrying. Called home, and the kids were excited to talk to me.
The course now includes a long stretch of bike trail from Yelm to Tenino, which was excellent. I ran out of water just as the trail ended, so the mini-stop at mile 86 was a huge relief. Filled up with water, and cruised the remaining 12 miles to the Centralia rest area at 10:20 AM.
Spent a half hour at Centralia. Weather was starting to get warm, so I left my T-shirt there. Food at Centralia was okay; had a couple of baloney sandwiches, filled up with water, and got back on the course.
Just past Chehalis, as we were heading back into the countryside, I got into a minor accident. Was in a pack of about 20 riders, and the course took a 90-degree turn to the right. I watched the wreck develop in slow motion. A young man cut across the path of the woman right in front of me. I could see that she’d be unable to avoid him; sure enough, he sliced right across her front wheel and she went down hard. I slammed on my brakes, but knew I’d be unable to avoid her. Braced myself, hit her bike, and tumbled to the pavement. Scraped up my right knee, but was more concerned about my bicycle. The rear wheel wouldn’t turn, and I was afraid it’d been potato-chipped (or had busted spokes). Several riders stopped, including a medic, and checked out the woman who’d been in front of me. Her arms were badly scraped, but she was okay. Her riding companion asked if I was okay, and I said I was, but showed him my rear wheel. Fortunately, it was just a matter of the rear brake being jammed from the impact. He was able to realign it, and all of us were back on the road. Big relief. I saw the two of them again at Lexington; they were leaving as I was arriving. All of us assured the others that we were doing fine, despite our scrapes. The medical support on the ride was unbelievably good; I got my knee cleaned up at a first aid station in Vader, and really appreciated the help I got.
Along the way, I called Danby, another amateur farmer (and one of the blog’s frequent commenters); he lives a few miles off the course, and we’d agreed ahead of time to try to meet. I told him I was incoming, and he met me at a mini-stop near his house. We spent about 10-15 minutes chatting. Was very glad we were able to get together.
Was getting tired, and running out of food, between Vader and Castle Rock. Stopped at Castle Rock for about 15 minutes and filled up with water and used the restroom, but the available food was mostly candy. As my stomach was begging for carbs and protein, I decided I could stretch what I had until Lexington. Spent about a half hour at the Lexington stop, enjoying the excellent wrap-style sandwiches they had. Finally climbed back on the bike at 2:40 PM; was miserable battling winds and lousy roads/traffic into Longview, but I realized that the winds seemed to be blowing from a direction that would favor us once we crossed the bridge. That lifted my spirits.
The bridge itself was worse than I remembered. Lots of traffic whizzing by on the way up, then the expansion joints on the way down could be dangerous if not handled properly. I wanted to fly down the bridge at 40 MPH, but each expansion joint was dealing a horrible THUD to my front wheel. Fearing a tire blowout, I slowed down and took my time. Some riders were "bunny hopping" over the expansion joints at full speed, but I honestly didn't trust myself to try that. Ended up reaching the bottom safely, then began the long slog down Hwy 30.
The stretch to St Helens was by far my slowest of the day; averaged just 15.5 MPH between rest stops. Was pretty much all uphill from the bridge to St Helens – I had not remembered that. I’d thought the hills rolled more. Struggled a lot here, especially since there were fairly few people to ride with. Took a much-deserved half hour or so break at St Helens. Watermelon was wonderful, and I got some excellent cookies. Ice water made a big difference, too. Was quite hot by now. The folks staffing this rest stop knew how tired we were, and went out of their way to be friendly and of service. If any of you are reading this, please know how deeply appreciative I am for what you did.
St Helens is on a plateau, and it was largely downhill to Portland from there. My spirits were high, and I made very good time to the city limits, but after entering the city the stop lights killed my average time for this section of the course.
Reached the finish line just before 7pm. That was a respectable enough time for me, and above all I felt fairly good. I knew I wasn't the strongest one out there, and this wasn't my fastest double century ride, but speed wasn't my goal; finishing strong was. The other things which contributed to the strong finish: I was fanatical about eating and drinking before I felt hungry or thirsty. Having a Camelbak hydration system helped a lot, as water was always just a turn of the head away. And the regular rest stops ensured I never ran out of food. Also, I found that taking two ibuprofen tablets at each rest stop helped ward off and control soreness in my shoulders and back.
The next morning, I picked up a rental car, packed up my bike, dropped it at a 24-hour FedEx/Kinkos (yes, it was much cheaper to FedEx my bike both ways than it was to take it on the plane as checked baggage), and started driving back to Seattle. Stopped to see some extended family in Shelton, and spent a wonderful afternoon hanging out with them. Felt quite sore all day, but tried to keep moving and stretching. Stopped at Whole Foods that evening and picked up a fresh salmon to carry home with me; this was an essential gift for the family. Caught the redeye out of Sea-Tac at 11:20, and was home Monday morning.
Will I be back to ride again next year? I'd love to, but between having an infant in the house and it being a busy year for work, it's doubtful I'll be able to leave the farm for that many days in the middle of summer. Not impossible. Just don't put money on my being out there on the course before 2011.