My big trip of the summer had actually come from an idea planted in my head by my long-time friend Sarah when I completed my first TOSRV, proving that I could handle back-to-back century rides. Sarah, who lives in Seattle, told me about the Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic (STP) which her brother and father often did (in one day instead of two) on a tandem each year. She hinted that I could do the ride and come out to visit her to boot! So in February when registration for STP was opened to the public, I found myself excitedly signing up. I booked my flight, requested a week and a half vacation at work, and the plans commenced.
I arrived in Seattle the Wednesday before the Saturday-Sunday ride to get myself acclimated to Pacific Standard Time as well as enjoy a few leisurely days wandering around this beautiful city and getting used to my rental bike. I’d been to Seattle before and knew that there was always plenty to do and see. I picked up my rental bike on Thursday morning at Montlake Bicycle Shop in the Montlake neighborhood of Seattle. I was originally told I was going to ride a Cannondale Synapse–possibly a compact double–but to my extreme delight, they wheeled out a Giant OCR 1 with a triple chain ring! Riding a bike the same make and model as Black Beauty really made me feel as though I were on my own bike, especially with my saddle and pedals on it. Though, I will say that the paint job on this OCR was not as cool as the paint job on my own beloved bike.
I used the bike to commute around Seattle in the two days before STP. This was an amazing experience. Prior to arriving in Seattle, I was extremely apprehensive about riding a bike on the busy roads of a big city as I only ride around the ‘burbs and the country back home. However, though Seattle is a big city, it feels suburban in some ways. Perhaps it’s because unlike Cleveland–which only really consists of a downtown area–Seattle is really more of a city in which people live as well as work in the parts outside of the immediate downtown area. To top it off, Seattle is probably one of the most bike friendly cities I’ve ever been in on bike, next to Boulder, Colorado, which really isn’t nearly a comparable size. (Boulder also feels quite suburban.)
The main roads had either sharrows or bike lanes and, in general, the cars seemed to accept the presence of bicycles on the road. They would have to be because bikes were everywhere. On my last days in Seattle, I had a car and experienced the roads as a motorist, and my general observation was that people were more patient with cyclists than with other motorists. I was actually more frightened as a motorist driving the same streets as I rode as a cyclist. Maybe it’s because as a motorist you have little time to make a decision about which way to turn when you’re not sure how to get where you need to go. I was honked at a few times as I tried to navigate the city by car. I’m definitely going to rent a bike the next time I visit Seattle and use it to get around, regardless of whether I’m doing some big bike event or not.
The day before STP, I took the bike out for a test ride from the bed and breakfast where I was staying to the STP start line at the E-1 parking lot at the U of Washington campus (by Husky Stadium). Of course, being navigationally-challenged, I got lost at this first attempt despite my handwritten turn-by-turn instructions, missing a turn near the campus, and then after consulting my Seattle bike map, I was blocked by a detour on a street which would have taken me right to where I needed to go. I ended up riding straight through campus (on top of a hill). I eventually was able to visually spot the stadium and make my way over via the Burke-Gilman bike trail. I rode around the parking lot for a bit, trying to figure out where the start line actually was, but I couldn’t find any painted symbols or markers. I eventually left, figuring that the start location would be impossible to miss the next morning with 10,000 cyclists present.
After finding the starting location for STP, I continued down the Burke-Gilman trail to do some exploration. I ended up at Magnuson Park (slightly off-trail but following signs) before I decided to turn around. I had thought that perhaps I would following the signs for the Lake Washington Loop, assuming it was something short, but it appeared to be a lot longer than anticipated.
What I missed most on my rental bike was a computer. I was flying blind on mileage and speed. I realized about half way thought this ride that I actually had a spare computer I could have brought–the wireless I removed from my Giant because I got tired of stray electrical waves interfering with my stats. While the interference was annoying, it would have been good enough to use on the rental. I just didn’t think of it. Bad oversight as I hated not knowing how far I’d ridden or my exact stats. On the other hand, it sure did prevent me from trying to even out my mileage. If STP came up short on the century either day, I had no way of truly knowing, which was probably better for my psyche anyway.
I finished my pre-ride with a loop around Green Lake, which was near my bed and breakfast. The lake was pretty, but riding around it was extremely annoying because there were just too many pedestrians and they kept wandering into the lane for wheeled vehicles (bicycles, rollerblades, skateboards). So I didn’t complete the loop and ended up going back on the road. I estimate that I rode about 30 miles that morning. I felt pretty good, though the terrain was mostly flat. (I did end up taking on some nasty hills during my stay in Seattle. Perhaps I’ll blog more about that later.)
The official start time for STP was a painful 5:15-7:30am. I knew that I wanted to get an early start so not to be the last person coming in that evening, especially since I didn’t really have any idea of the type of terrain that awaited me. The girl who checked out my rental bike at Montlake Bicycles had told me that STP was “flat,” but flat is really a relative term depending on location. I learned this in Colorado both with hiking and cycling. One man’s flat is another person’s hell. I can personally remember several hikes I did in which the Coloradoans described the trail as “easy.” Yeah, “easy” in Colorado is “challenging” in Ohio. So I know to take another person’s description of terrain with a grain of salt. Still, I did know that the one big hill on the ride was only a 7% grade for a mile. Living in near the Cuyahoga Valley, 7% grade is hardly anything for me. If that was the worst the ride had to offer, then I would be fine. Still, I didn’t know for sure what lay ahead. And I’m extremely good at worrying. Especially when I’m afraid I won’t complete something.
The 4am wake-up call came too soon. I reluctantly rolled out of bed, packed up the last of my things into a small backpack, set my keys and payment to the bed and breakfast on the dining room table, and slipped out the door into the predawn morning. Due to the previous day’s confusion, with the help of Sarah and Alison, I chose a different route with less turns that would hopefully take me to the start line quicker and without getting lost. The roads of Seattle were vacant in a spooky post-apocalyptic sort of way–this is definitely not the city that never sleeps–so I was less nervous navigating my way around. Eventually, as I got closer to the U District, I started to see blinking bicycle tail lights and other cyclists bearing full backpacks or panniers making their way around, headed, I assumed, for the start line. At a stop light, a couple on a tandem stopped next to me. The captain smiled and said, “This way to Portland?” I laughed. Nothing like the camaraderie of cyclists!
I should have followed the tandem–they seemed to know exactly where they were going–but I was afraid I’d lose them (since they were obviously faster) or follow them to some stop they were making on the way out. I continued on my pre-planned route down Brooklyn to the Burke-Gilman where I actually ended up encountering the steady flow of STP cyclists going the opposite direction headed out-of-town. They were on the road–a normally busy street that was blocked off by traffic police–while I paralleled along the path. I wasn’t worried because the ride had actually started at 4:30am for those doing the entire 200 mile route in one day. I had just aimed to depart in one of the middle groups.
I arrived at the E-1 lot and, as predicted, very easily found the start line. Riders were queuing up behind a big Start banner and were being released in waves every 10 minutes or so. A dj sat on a stage beside the line, playing music and revving everyone’s spirits up. Riders shouted and hooted. The scene had a lot of energy and I felt goosebumps rising in my flesh. I always get excited feeling the fever of an event. Unlike TOSRV in which riders leave without ceremony whenever they want, STP seemed to start in several waves of raging whoops and hollers. I dropped off my bag at the Centralia luggage truck, had a bystander take my picture at the start line while a wave of riders set off, and then queued up with the next group of riders.
With an air horn and well-wishes, my wave of riders was sent off into the morning. It was about 5:45am as I rolled out onto the city streets to begin my adventure. I was a little nervous about departing with 100 or so riders, but as we snaked through the city streets, we spread out a little into thinner lines of two or three cyclists across. I think the reason for the early start time might be related to traffic since I doubt a car could get by us without riding in the opposing traffic’s lane as we fled the city.
We crossed the University Bridge and passed through some nice neighborhoods in Montlake. Eventually, we ended up on Lake Washington Blvd which offered some beautiful views of the lake. It was a little overcast so I had no idea that one could actually see Mt. Rainier from that area, as I would learn later in the week when I revisited this part of the route for an afternoon ride. Before slipping away into clouds, the sun glittered the lake with light and I stopped to grab a few pictures.
I couldn’t stop comparing STP to TOSRV since I think the rides are very similar in structure. Like TOSRV, STP is a big ride on which every kind of cyclist partakes–from serious road cyclists to people on creaky old comfort bikes. I suspect for some it’s the only ride they do all year, or one of the very few. TOSRV goes through southern Ohio following a river valley, but avoids any of the really difficult climbs the area could offer; STP also goes through a valley and seems to avoid the worst possible climbs. Both rides are relatively easy.
I thought that on TOSRV you’re never alone, but there actually long stretches in which you can be by yourself for periods of time. On STP, at least on that first day, this NEVER happens. Ever. With a steady stream of some 10,000 cyclists (compared to TOSRV’s “meager” 2,000), you are always passing riders or being passed by other riders. It’s insane. I started getting tired of saying “On your left” and pretty much reserved it for the moments when someone was drifting into my passing zone or for riders with iPods in their ears (my biggest pet peeve). Maybe this was rude, but, seriously, you could go hoarse just trying to warn people every time. For the most part, people were aware that you were behind them and they were about to be passed.
I experienced a few instances of uninvited wheel-sucking. By myself, I can clip along at a pretty stiff pace. Even without my computer, I can guess that most of time along a flat straight away, I was clipping an even 17-18mph because this is what I normally do at home. So it seems that I’m often a good target for people looking to get a free ride. I’ve noticed this happening to me even in Ohio. I don’t exactly enjoy it and when I notice someone’s trying to do it, I’ll slow down or speed up to try to shake them off. Over 100 miles, I decided I didn’t want to push so hard so I was just letting it happen when it did. Most of the people, however, thanked me, freely acknowledging that they were using me for rest before pushing on (which never happens in Ohio). I guess this was a politeness I wasn’t used to, but I’m not sure I liked it any better. A few of them invited me to then draft off of them, but I declined. I really don’t like to ride so close to other people I don’t know. Also, I wanted the opportunity to stop for pictures whenever the scenery enticed.
STP has frequent rest stops. Some of the rest stops–spaced about 25 miles apart–are official “free food” stops which are offered by the ride organizers. Mini-stops, which occurred about every 10 or so miles, are run by organizations within the community you’re passing through, such as high school bands or sports teams. At the mini-stops, you’re encouraged to provide a donation for the offered food. I tried not to use these too much since I had planned on a more budgeted tour. However, I still managed to lose a lot of $1 bills when the call of homemade cookies overcame my better senses. And on Sunday morning, I couldn’t resist the stop that advertised homemade banana bread… yumm….
The Hill–the big one everyone fretted about–was outside Puyallup (I still cannot pronounce the name of this town). It was a climb out of a canyon that was a pretty steady 6-7% grade for a mile with one spot in the middle where the road leveled out for a few yards. At every intersection during the climb, I spotted volcano evacuation signs that I really wanted to stop and get a picture of, but my blood was pumping and I was too charged for the climb to stop. To me, the road felt like the hard parts of Truxell Road in the Cuyahoga Valley. I didn’t even bottom out of my granny gears, but I enjoyed the climb all the same.
I think the professional photographers on the route got a picture of me doing this climb. If it’s not “The Hill,” it’s some other climb from the first day. Either way, it sure looks like I’m leading the pack, doesn’t it? I wonder if these are more wheel-suckers…
At the top of “The Hill,” there was a polka-dotted sign, representing the jersey awarded to the best mountain climber during the Tour de France. I stopped to get my picture in front of the sign for the heck of it, even though the climb was not really particularly challenging for me. It was still fun, though. (Any climb is fun!)
All in all, the first day’s ride was pretty easy. “The Hill” was the longest climb. There were a few short steeper climbs but nothing to fret particularly about. Between the towns of Spanaway and Roy, we were on a long stretch of a flat state route that was lined on both sides with very tall fir (I think) trees that smelled of a pleasantly sweet musk and passed the east gate of Fort Lewis in what felt like the middle of nowhere. We had about a fifteen mile ride on a flatish bike path to mile 85. Parts of the bike path seemed to be trending upwards slightly. I thought it was my fatigue at first that caused me to switch to my middle chain ring for part of it, but in talking later to other riders, it appears it did have a slight grade for a few miles. It was hard to ride with so many other cyclists on a narrow bike path.
In every town along the route, people lined the streets, watching the riders go by and cheering us on. It was as though I were in some kind of race. Some people held signs to motivate their family members or friends. The first day’s finish line at Centralia College was rather festive. When you rolled across the line, volunteers immediately handed you a creamiscle. A female announcer continuously congratulated riders over a PA system and directed us to the various points of interest, particularly the beer garden to which I immediately headed. I finished the first day at 1:45pm. I must have had a pretty nice pace going!
My overnight accommodations were actually set up through the local Zonta Club which offered, for just $65, bed and rest at a person’s house which, on top of a warm shower, included dinner and breakfast the next morning. When I was ready to leave the festivities, I was supposed to call my hosts for the night to pick me up and take me to their house. Now, the thing that I really messed up here was the detail that I neglected to realize in my email correspondence with them: they actually lived in Chehalis, the next town just five miles away. The second day’s route goes from Centralia to Chehalis.
Unfortunately, I’d put my baggage (the backpack) on the Centralia truck and had I realized this detail, I would have had it sent to the park in Chehalis. It was not clear to me until my hosts picked me up that I could have/should have just rode on to Chehalis myself and then had them pick me up there. Needless to say, I lost 5 miles of the total STP ride with that move. Had I realized all this when I called them from Centralia, I would have just ridden with backpack the last five miles to Chehalis so that I wouldn’t end up missing a five mile portion of the route. I’m still beating myself up about this mistake–can I still claim having done STP when I missed a five-mile segment? I tried to comfort myself with the fact that I’d actually done an extra 2-3 miles with my ride to the start from the bed and breakfast. But all I can hear in my head is my cycling friends accusing me of not actually completing the route. So I figured I’d better own up to it here and move on…
You live and you learn. Not being a local, I just didn’t know and had assumed that Chehalis was a near town, but not one along the route. Oh well. At least I didn’t miss five miles because I had to SAG.
My host family was really great. They lived at the top of an excessively nasty hill, one that they said they never expected any riders to try to do after 100 miles, and after I rode up it with them in their car, I realized I wouldn’t have wanted to make that climb either, least of all bearing my backpack. It was pretty brutal. But the scenery from their dining room window was fabulous! I should have taken some pictures, but once showered and handed a second beer, I pretty much lost all motivation to do much of anything but sit and chat.
My evening consisted of showering, chatting, eating, and then crashing around 9:30pm after some political discussion with my liberal hosts. The bed they provided was really comfortable with big fluffy pillows and I slept like the dead until 4:30am the next morning to do it… all… over… again… Though, honestly, since I wasn’t turning around and doing the same route the next day in reverse, as is the case with TOSRV, I found myself much more motivated to begin the next day’s ride because I was headed to a new destination rather than the same one.
To make up for the previous day’s error, I assured my host that I didn’t need a ride to the park since downhill from their house was no problem (though a bit scary–it was twisty-turny, which we all know I’m uncomfortable with). Truth be told, the ride from their house to the park was probably just a mile so I didn’t completely make back the lost mileage. I don’t know how close to a century I was the second day, but I’m guessing I was only about two or three miles off since the route sheet showed 102 miles for that day. I’ll never know, thanks to not having a computer on my bike. (The first day was actually only 98 miles to Centralia. However, since I’d ridden 2-3 miles to the start, I have no doubt that I got a full century the first day.) Maybe I shouldn’t care…?
The second day’s route was much nicer than the first, offering better scenery through less populated areas and a series of short, moderately steep climbs. I had to remind myself continuously to gear down so not as to throw out my knee as I did on TOSRV. When climbs are moderate and short, I have a tendency to want to muscle through them in higher gears. To prove something to myself? To try to convince myself I don’t always need to rely so heavily on the granny gears? I don’t know. But it’s dumb and I really had to struggle with myself to use lower gears and spin more.
The weather was overcast and occasionally we entered patches of a misty precipitation like going through a fog. Is this what they call a Pacific Northwest rain? I wondered. The temperatures were lower on both days than I would have liked during the ride–in the mid-50s under overcast skies. I had to keep my jacket on since I’d forgotten to bring arm warmers–a huge oversight on my part as well as deciding to only bring sleeveless jerseys. The week before I arrived in Seattle, the temperatures had actually hit the 80s and 90s and I guess I was expecting to get caught in that. In the future, I think I’ll just bring regular jerseys and a pair of arm warmers. No matter how hot it gets, you can always survive in a regular jersey, whereas sleeveless jerseys are pretty much only good for really warm weather.
To get into Oregon, we crossed the Lewis & Clark Bridge. We were required to follow a motorcycle escort across the bridge, so we had to queue up and go in groups of about 100 riders. This was a bit nerve-wrecking since the right lane and its berm were narrower, and there was a climb up it which actually turned out to be a little steeper than I thought it would be. I ended up reluctantly using granny gear between the grade of the bridge and the pace of the group. Fortunately, the cyclists had made a passing lane on the far left of the lane that I could use to pass those who were too slow for me to hang behind. It was still a little scary as you had to watch your tires and everyone else’s so I didn’t get to enjoy the scenery on either side of the bridge.
We weren’t allowed to stop on the bridge so I couldn’t take any pictures, which really bummed me out. Additionally, once we got over the bridge, there were so many cyclists to get around that stopping to take pictures could have caused a wreck. So unfortunately I have no pictures of myself by the Oregon border or welcome signs. I at least can say that I have cycled from Washington to Oregon; I just have no photographic proof. You believe me, right?
The last 30-40 miles to Portland were on US-30–a mostly high-traffic road that offered little by way inspiring scenery with which to distract yourself. Being limited to a narrow berm, it was often hard to get around slower riders because you had to time each passing between cars. On top of that, the motorists were not very friendly; this was the one and only place during my entire week and a half in the Pacific Northwest in which I experienced the all-too-familiar angry shouts from motorists. A few f-bombs and negative comments about cyclists were expressed by passengers passing cars. It was just like home. One was even a red pickup truck. Evidently people who drive red pickup trucks have the same passion against non-motorized vehicles in the Pacific Northwest as in the Midwest.
Needless to say, the combination of the long haul on the same road, the lack of scenery, the traffic, and the unfriendly motorists made that last stretch into Portland my least favorite on the whole ride. It was kind of disappointing, too, since the day had started out so well with just the opposite–great scenery, some fun hills, and light traffic along more rural roads. It was all I could do to keep my mind on the task of riding. I totally had to go into that zone where you just tune out all thoughts of time and presence and just push relentlessly forward because you have to. I think many of my fellow riders were in the same place. We all but ceased to warn each other when we were passing, often just grunting acknowledgments back and forth. At least the clouds started to burn off and I was able to shed my jacket, finally enjoying some warmth while riding for the first time on the ride.
My comfort level was complicated further when I lost one of my contact lenses at the last free food stop in St. Helens–about 25 miles from the end of the ride. My contacts were fogged up, which often seems to happen when I’m wearing sunglasses or ski goggles over my eyes and participating in strenuous activity (like skiing or cycling) for prolonged periods of time. It was driving me nuts. So I went to the First Aid tent to get some saline solution, which they had, to try to remove each contact and wipe it off. Unfortunately, they did not have a mirror so I had to put my contacts back in–pun intended–blindly. I guess I thought I got the contact into my left eye when in reality it must have dropped on the ground. Since the left eye is my better eye, I didn’t really seem to notice that it wasn’t in until I glanced into my helmet mirror to check the riders behind me as I was leaving the stop. My vision was all fuzzy. I blinked. Still fuzzy.
I dismounted. I moved the helmet mirror to my face and put my hand to my eye to check for the lens. It wasn’t there. Damn. (And now it occurs to me in retrospect that I should have tried to use my helmet mirror to put the contact in. Duh!) Fortunately, whenever I travel I carry a spare pair of contacts, since I’ve been screwed before by losing one and not having a replacement; however, the spare was in my toiletries kit in my backpack in Portland. I was not about to quit the ride over a missing contact, so I just pedaled on, thankful that I hadn’t lost the one in my right eye instead because I would never have been able to balance out my vision and my depth-perception would have been destroyed. It started out as a minor annoyance while on US-30 that got increasingly uncomfortable once I got to the narrow city streets of Portland where I really had to pay attention to not only other cyclists, but cars, the STP arrows through frequent turns, and pedestrians.
My mind kept asking, “Are we there yet?” I may not have had a computer on my bike, but my body knew I’d reached close to 100 miles and it was decidedly done with all this crazy cycling. Since we were finally in the downtown area of Portland, I was sure the finish line was just up the street. But the STP markers just kept leading us on and on through streets I didn’t know. I ended up in a pack of moderately paced cyclists who I could tell were actually quite fast and were just taking it easy on the final approach to the end. They talked about the paceline they’d had for a while, how US-30 didn’t seem so bad that way. Ha. Maybe I have the wrong idea after all. We all made punchy jokes about being ready to be done with the ride and looking forward to the beer garden at the finish line.
We went across a bridge (not the bridge we were originally supposed to go across) with a very narrow bike lane that rode the side of the bridge in a completely separated area from the section of the cars use. You can see the bridge in the background of the picture below taken by the professional photographers as I climbed the bike trail/pedestrian walkway back up off the bridge onto the street (I think we were on the lower deck of the bridge).
As we approached the finish line at Holladay Park, I could hear a voice over loud speakers congratulating the people ahead of me as they crossed the finish line. The last couple hundred yards of the street were lined with people cheering, clapping, and shouting encouragements to riders as they passed. It was kind of cool to experience this enthusiasm. I’m told that TOSRV used to be like that when the finish line party was at the old suspension bridge into Portsmouth. I’ve never gotten to experience that so this was quite a treat. Kind of like how we’re cheered by volunteers at each finish line of the MS 150.
I crossed beneath the Finish banner where my picture was taken as I came in (see below) and I was handed an STP Finisher patch on string to wear around my neck. All the pomp and circumstance was actually quite cool. I felt like I’d achieved something new, even though this was the third two-day back-to-back century ride I’d done this year. Well, this was the first back-to-back century I’d done through Washington and Oregon. There’s always a reason to celebrate!
Of course, the first thing I did after reaching the park was get my backpack so that I could put a new contact lens in. Which I did without a mirror very, very carefully. And then I was among the sighted again! My next task was to buy an official STP jersey. Unfortunately, they were out of my size, but I was able to put in an order for one which I won’t receive until the end of August or early September. So I can’t flaunt my completion of another, more exotic faraway ride quite yet.
The finish line party was quite an event. It was like being at fair with food vendors and booths for various organizations advertising their wears, most of which were sports-related. I bought a Greek gyro and cruised around the place to check everything out. Bikes and people were everywhere, really pushing maximum capacity in the park. I actually lost my bike in the sea of abandoned bikes laying on the ground and against trees, nearly having a panic attack that it had been stolen, which would mean I’d have to pay for it. Fortunately, I located it again and then made a point to memorize landmarks around where I’d set it so that I could easily find it again. I moved it strategically closer to the beer garden, and then proceeded to go in to have my 100-mile treat–a nice dark brown microbrew.
STP was a pretty fun ride. I think it’s more of a local thing in the same way TOSRV is local to Ohioans. On both rides, you don’t get to see the best of the state, but you get the easiest way through it, which is good for the less experienced cyclist. The challenge in TOSRV is the weather and how early it falls in the season to do so many miles. Neither TOSRV nor STP provide challenging terrain; STP, being later in the season, could get away with slightly more challenge. Don’t get me wrong: I like both rides. And, true, 100 miles for two days is certainly challenge enough for most people (even me). However, I guess I was slightly disappointed that we didn’t have at least one climb on a pass or something with a spectacular view. The ride was definitely very festive and I did like it for that. I’m glad I did it. And, best of all, it was a great excuse to visit Sarah, her family, and Alison.
If I lived in Seattle or Portland, I’d probably become a yearly participant in the same way I am for TOSRV. But as a tourist, I think that the next time I ride in the PNW, I’m going to choose something a little more scenic. I’ve currently got my eyes on Ride Around Washington (RAW) which looks like XOBA for Washington. Of course, I could always go back to do my own tour, riding Highway 101 along the coast down through Oregon. There are a lot of possibilities. But I think once of STP is enough for me. Unless, of course, I ever want to be crazy and try to do the one-day version of the ride… Oh, who knows. Can I really say once is enough for anything?