I try to get out to Seattle at least once a year, to catch up with family and old friends. Whenever possible, I time the trip to coincide with my favorite ultramarathon cycling event: the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic (STP). It’s an unbelievably well-organized ride, with an extremely scenic (but relatively flat) course, which draws 10,000 participants every year. Most take two days to cover the 206 miles, but some of us crazies prefer to go the whole distance in a single day.
Why? I’ve done the two-day ride. Once. And, quite honestly, I think it’s easier to just keep going and pull all the way through to Portland before stopping. It’s a lot easier than riding a hundred miles, sleeping in a tent or on the floor of a church basement (if you’re not lucky enough to book a motel room, many of which sell out the summer before the event as soon as the dates are announced), and then getting up the next morning and climbing back on the bike and riding another hundred miles. I’ve done lots of hundred miles rides in my lifetime. I can’t remember a single time I woke up the next morning, even after sleeping in my own bed, and thought, “Hey! You know what would be a great idea? Going out for another century ride!” Some people mitigate this on STP by going past the midpoint on the first day, even as far as 140 or 150 miles, before stopping for the night. Still…I’d rather just be done with it and enjoy waking up in Portland. But to each his own.
Every year, after getting home, I put together a ride report / write-up of the trip. I’ve tried to include a number of details that would be especially relevant for other “out of towners” who may be considering going out to the Pacific Northwest for this terrific event.
This STP was more of a challenge than last year’s. Still a good, strong ride. Still one that I’m proud of and satisfied with. But various issues conspired to make it take about an hour longer than last year’s “perfect,” best-of-my-life, sub-12 hour STP. (For the record, this was my 16th STP, and 15th one day ride).
My flight got in to Sea-Tac at 10:30am on Thursday the 9th. The Pacific NW has had a terrible drought this year, and it was visible from the air. I always book a window seat on the left side of the plane, so I can admire the Cascades coming in. It hadn’t rained for weeks, making the air so hazy that I could hardly even see the mountains. Never seen the Seattle area looking so brown and dead. No green lawns anywhere.
I caught a bus to Bellevue, which took about 40 minutes. My cousin met me at the stop; I’d shipped the bike to her house, and she’d been holding it for me. We chatted for an hour or so, and enjoyed some lunch, while I assembled the bike on her back porch.
I took the Falcon, which is my “rain bike.” I have another bike (a custom Curtlo) which is much better, and which I’ve taken the last two years, but decided on the Falcon this time for several reasons:
- It is all steel, and the least likely to get damaged in shipment (no carbon fork).
- If it were to get damaged or lost, it wouldn’t be as bad as losing my best bike.
- It’s worth less, so the package costs less to insure.
- My daughter and I were doing a big race in Illinois just one week after STP, and I definitely wanted my best bike for that. If I’d taken the Curtlo to Seattle and the return shipment were delayed, or if the bike were damaged coming home, that wouldn’t have been possible. Also, if I’d taken the Curtlo, I’d have been scrambling to reassemble it the same day we were to leave for Illinois ─ with no time to test or tweak it.More intangibly, the Falcon is a cool retro bike that would be the only one of its kind on STP. Black, lugged Reynolds 531 frameset, with all silver Campagnolo components from the 8-speed era, including a fluted aero seatpost. Looks straight out of the early 90s.
And…this bike is completely “carbon free.” There isn’t a single carbon fiber component anywhere on the bike. Don’t get me wrong: I love the carbon fork, crankset, seat post, and other components on some of my other bikes. It’s just that there was something kind of fun about shedding all of it for this big event. Not to mention the personal challenge of seeing how well I could do on a sub-optimal machine. Riding along next to so many bikes that seemed to be dripping carbon fiber, I actually felt a little like a rebel.
The one “modern / performance” concession was my Rolf Prima Elan clincher wheelset, with 8 cogs from a 10s Veloce cassette respaced to match the Campy 8s drivetrain. Gearing was 53 x 39 up front, with 12-21 in the back. In past years, 39×21 was barely adequate for the STP course. This year was no exception. I never had to walk the bike, but there were some climbs where I was standing and stomping on the pedals, and a 23T cog would’ve been much appreciated ─ and I would’ve used it if I’d had it. Still, I must admit that riding such a tight gear cluster was fun, and did add to the challenge of taking the Falcon.
Right before shipping the bike, I installed two brand new Continental Grand Prix 4000S II 700×23 tires. Wanted to do everything I could to avoid flats.
The shipping cost to Seattle from Michigan was about $70 each way. That $140 total is less than the $150 cost of taking it ONE way on Delta (and most other airlines). Using a cardboard box from the bike shop, cut down slightly, kept it just under the “oversize” limit. It protected the old steel bike just fine (i.e. no hard case necessary).
All my clothes fit in a backpack, so I was able to ride the bike from my cousin’s house to where I was staying in the University District. However, the pack was heavy and a pain to ride with. Worse, I got lost trying to find the entrance to the I-90 bike trail that goes across Lake Washington. Rode up and down the east side of the lake in the hot afternoon sun, heavy pack on my back, trying to follow GPS instructions on my phone. Wasted lots of time, and was exhausted by the time I got to my hotel at 4pm or so.
What I may do next time, and what I would recommend to those who don’t have family in the Seattle area, is to ship the bike to a shop in the University District and have it assembled / tuned up. That service typically costs around $100, and the bike would be waiting. Just make sure you find a shop that will agree to hold the shipping carton for you, and that will be open on Sunday so you can get the box back after the ride. (Or make sure you have some other place to store it.)
This year, I tried a different lodging alternative: The College Inn, on the corner of 40th and University. It’s essentially a glorified Hostel. The room was the smallest I’ve ever seen, with just enough room for a bed, tiny table, and sink. Barely had space to park my bike. The restroom was down the hall. However, the price was only $75 per night. My total stay cost less than a single night at the Travelodge, where I’ve often stayed in the past (and the Travelodge is no great luxury resort, either). It was even less than the cost to stay in a UW dorm room, which Cascade arranges for STP participants. The College Inn had a nice breakfast spread in their spacious 4th floor lounge area. Also, Friday night, almost everyone there was doing STP, so there was a great sense of camaraderie.
I logged roughly 2,650 total training miles this year leading up to STP, slightly less than last year. Longest rides were the National 24 Hour Challenge, a month earlier (323 miles), and Calvin’s Challenge (188.5 miles) in May, but otherwise didn’t break the century mark on any given training ride. On Friday, I took two nice and easy rides: six or so miles down to REI and back (to pick up my rider packet), and then a longer ride up the Burke Gilman trail to Bothell and back. Altogether, I logged around 40 miles and averaged just 14 MPH. I wasn’t really feeling that great; the weather was pretty warm, I was still tired from the previous day’s exertions, and didn’t have a lot of energy. I think I was also dehydrated. Still enjoyed pedaling around my home town, and resolved to simply go slow and soak in the sights. No rush. No appointments. I got a pizza for dinner back in the U-District, and got to bed early.
On a typical STP or other ultramarathon event, almost all of my fuel is liquid – a mix of Hammer HEED and Hammer vegan protein powder. I make a big batch, using 1 scoop protein (large scoops) for every four small scoops of HEED. Then, I use one and a half small scoops of blended powder per bottle. Unfortunately, however, I didn’t bring enough with me this time ─ only five servings. This caused me to ration it at the beginning, which impacted my performance.
I started the ride with one bottle of fuel mix, and one bottle of plain water (to ration the fuel mix). I figured that would be enough fluid to make it all the way to my first main rest stop. I also carried a flask of Hammer Gel, which was plenty for the whole ride.
I did bring plenty of Hammer supplements, and was quite regular in taking them. They made a big difference. I carried a tube of Endurolytes capsules, and had at least one or two per hour. I also carried ten tiny plastic bags, with a “serving” of supplements in each: one Race Caps Supreme, one Endurolytes, one Endurance Amino, and two Anti-Fatigue Caps. Having these pre-packaged saved a lot of time and hassle. I took one serving approximately every hour. Never developed cramps, or suffered any symptoms of electrolyte depletion.I used a Jandd seat pack, which is fairly large and designed for tubulars, but not too large. That gave room for two spare tubes, three tire levers, and a multi-tool ─ with plenty of space left for all the supplements and drink powder. I always carried a few servings of supplements in my pockets, but left as much as possible in the pack. I hate carrying weight on my back.
The College Inn opened up their free breakfast at 3am on Saturday, so all of us STPers could get something to eat. I got up at 3:25am, and enjoyed a nice conversation with a couple from Portland, who were riding for the first time (two-day ride), while I drank my coffee-with-Hammer-Gel-mixed-in. Also ate a few fig bars, and took all the pre-ride supplements that Hammer recommends for an hour before a big event.
Since I’d put everything in order the night before, there was very little else to worry about in the morning. Was able to leave about ten minutes after 4am, and it was an easy half-mile ride from The College Inn to the start line, even with the large pack balanced on my back.
Used the toilet, put my backpack on the truck for Portland, and was in line to depart ten minutes before the official start.
The weather was comfortable at the start ─ around 60 degrees ─ and overcast. Because rain showers were forecast for later that morning, I took a rain jacket bundled up in a pocket. I can best describe the weather as one of those “blah” Pacific NW days where it can’t really figure out what it wants to do. Cloudy a lot of the time. Some rain. Then some sun. Never quite as warm as you’d like it to be (low-to-mid sixties all morning, and never got much above 70 even by late afternoon). Never quite sure if those clouds are going to get thick enough to drop rain on you. And so on. And so on. I used a flashing red taillight all day long, just to increase my visibility.
I crossed under the start line timer at 4:46, in the very first group released from the start. I wore Hammer shorts, low-cut socks, and short-fingered gloves. Wore my 1995 California Triple Crown jersey, which I figured would be a nice 20thanniversary thing. Shouldn’t wear this one again, though: its pockets are on the small side, and limited what I could carry. Was tough even making the rain jacket fit. Still, was fun greeting the handful of other people wearing Triple Crown jerseys who I saw along the way.
The opening miles were less crowded than usual, and I saw very few people without bib numbers (i.e. unregistered riders). The first 24 miles went by just as fast as any other year: I arrived at the REI food stop in Kent after an hour and 15 minutes, but didn’t stop this time ─ and I don’t think I’ll ever stop there in the future. I did have to make a brief stop in Puyallup, about 41 miles in, but just to use the toilet.
The Hill, 43 miles in, was again no problem. Everyone makes a big deal about it, because it’s a 7% grade that goes on for a mile. Sure, that’s no day at the beach…but I think the difficulty is a bit over-rated. I was able to climb it using a 39×21 (though I did have to stand on the pedals at times), and passed a lot of people going up. I actually look forward to The Hill as a nice way to break up the course.
I rode with some good, fast groups of people both before and after The Hill. Made very good time (19.5 MPH) on this whole section from Kent to the 57-mile rest stop, and often felt like I was flying.
This year, the course bypassed Spanaway and went through the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). Very cool addition to the event, and very interesting getting to see what a military base looks like “behind the scenes.” The roads were flat and virtually empty of traffic, and only registered riders with bib numbers were allowed through the gate. The rest stop was at a large park in the middle of the base, and they’d put out lots of vintage aircraft and other military hardware for us to look at. I used the toilet, got a sandwich and some cookies, and filled one of my bottles with drink mix. Topped the other off with water, to have just in case I ran out of drink mix before the next big stop.
Connected with another good group after the rest stop, and rode with them through the remainder of the military base. I had to drop off the back eventually, though, because they were just too fast for me and I was burning out. I connected with another group soon enough, and continued at a good 19+ MPH pace. The nice thing about doing a double century with 2,000+ other people is that you’re virtually never alone on the course. There’s always lots of people to ride with, draft off of, and keep you company.When I got to Yelm, I decided to stay on SR-507 rather than going onto the bike trail like most people do. I’ve found the trail to be just too slow, what with having to ease up and check crossings all the time. Also, the trail is a bit narrow, and all the other bike traffic makes me nervous. Like last year, I wanted to put my head down on the aero bars and hammer. Unlike last year, though, this time lots of other people were with me on the highway. Good to see that so many others were making the same calculus about the trail. We made good time all the way to where we rejoined the trail going into Tenino.About 5-10 miles outside Centralia, around 10am, as forecast, it finally started to rain. Just a few sprinkles initially. Didn’t want to interrupt my momentum, and I wasn’t sure the rain was going to continue, so at first didn’t pull over to put on my rain jacket. Then it started falling harder and harder, and water was accumulating on the roadway. I found a safe place to pull off the road, put on my jacket, and got going again. It continued raining all the way into the Centralia rest stop, but then let up. The rain turned out to be more of an annoyance than anything else ─ but there was no way to know that ahead of time. I was glad to have had the rain jacket, even though I could’ve easily managed without it. (And many other people did manage just fine without rain gear.)My drivetrain had been shifting poorly all morning, and I’d just sort of “put up with it”. By the time I got to Centralia, I decided I’d had enough. Took it to the Performance Bike Shop booth, where they had several mechanics on duty. A nice young guy got working on my bike right away, and it didn’t take him long to get the derailleur adjusted perfectly. He also noticed that my chain was about a link too long, and asked if I’d like it cut down. Absolutely, I said. As he worked, I joked about those rate schedules that some repair shops post, with the highest prices if “you already fixed it yourself.” Well, I continued, self-deprecating … I’d swapped out that chain myself about a month ago ─ and clearly hadn’t done it correctly. He laughed and replied that “It’s people like you that keep us in business.” All very good-natured and fun back-and-forth as he worked. The service was free, but I made sure to leave a generous tip in his jar. The bike ran absolutely perfectly all the rest of the way to Portland, and my only regret was not getting the drivetrain checked out by a mechanic earlier.
I called the family, and gave them a quick update as to how things were going. Then quickly did everything else I needed to do. Stashed the rain jacket back in my pocket. Filled one bottle with drink mix, and the other bottle with the Nuun electrolyte drink they had available. Since the weather wasn’t terribly hot, so I figured those two bottles would get me through to Lexington. I’d start with the Hammer mix, and switch to the Nuun stuff when I ran out. The Nuun stuff turned out to be pretty good. I still prefer my Hammer fuel mix, but the Nuun drink was definitely better than water.I’d been averaging over 19 MPH all day, but slowed down significantly after Centralia. Only averaged 17.9 MPH for this section, significantly less than last year’s 19.2. Part of it was the groups I rode with weren’t as fast, but more than that … I just didn’t have as much energy. The weather was comfortable, but a bit cooler than I would’ve liked. Getting wet from the rain wasn’t fun, either. Also, we had some headwinds. Not huge gusts, but strong enough so I was feeling it.Stopped at the Winlock mini-stop (mile 123) for one of their awesome hamburgers. Was really starting to crave protein at that point, and the burger hit the spot nicely. Also felt good to be off the bike for a few minutes, and enjoy the sunshine that was peeking out. It was right around Winlock that I decided not to care about my ride time or results today, and to just enjoy the event. Live in the present moment. There was no rush to finish and catch a bus back to Seattle. I wasn’t meeting anyone in Portland. I decided to just relax, have a burger, and get back on the bike whenever I felt ready.I reached the Lexington rest stop (mile 147) sometime after 1pm, feeling on the tired side. Part of the reason: my bike. I like the Falcon, but it doesn’t have the same perfect fit as my Curtlo. This was by far the longest I’ve ever ridden the Falcon in a single day, and all those little mis-fits were starting to add up. And even though I’d mounted aero bars and adjusted them as best I could, they didn’t feel quite right. As a result, I didn’t spend nearly as much time in that efficient position as in previous years. Also, this is the longest I’ve ridden on a bike with a steel fork in many years. I’d forgotten just how nicely a carbon fork dampens the road vibration. Over the course of so many miles, that extra vibration was adding up. I could feel it in my hands, especially, but also in my shoulders.At the Lexington rest stop, I went overboard porking out on the delicious wrap sandwiches they had. They were so good, and hit the spot so perfectly, I just wanted to keep eating them! I think I had a total of three or four. Lost count. Also had a couple of macadamia nut cookies, which likewise tasted so good I felt like I could eat a dozen of them. Pulled out of the Lexington stop a little before 2pm, with my stomach hurting a bit from having eaten so much.Going through Longview and Kelso, approaching the Oregon border, temps were in the low-to-mid sixties, and there was a definite headwind. And then it started raining again. Part of the sky was clear, so I wasn’t sure how long the rain would last. I decided to pull over and put my jacket on again, before it got too wet. Of course, right then, it almost immediately stopped raining. I left the jacket on anyway.The climb up and over the Lewis and Clark bridge went smoothly; I didn’t get stuck behind anyone this time, at least not for long. As always, it was was a blast being so high up above the Columbia River and getting to see the view. Very fast descent down the other side.
The stretch to St Helens wasn’t bad, but wasn’t especially fun either. The winds died down, so that was good. But the jacket was starting to get uncomfortable, especially with all the climbing on Highway 30, so I pulled over near Gobble to remove it. My hands and shoulders were also getting increasingly sore, from the road vibration. My average speed for this section was only 17.2 MPH. That’s the slowest of the day, and much slower than the 19.7 MPH I managed through here last year.I was ready for a good stop at St. Helens High School (mile 177). I filled both bottles with ice water and the last two servings of Hammer drink mix. Had some watermelon, which tasted great, but bypassed the wrap sandwiches. They were the same type as in Lexington, and looked delicious, but my stomach was still a little upset from how much I’d stuffed myself with earlier.Pulled out of the St. Helens stop just before 4pm. Back on Highway 30, I was getting tired but did manage to settle into a good pace. Met up with a nice group going the same pace, which made the miles seem to roll by faster. One of the guys in the group was riding a custom wood-frame bike. Very cool, and a great conversation-starter. Lots of people were asking him about it.I left St. Helens with two full bottles of fuel mix for the final 30 mile stretch, but only drank one of them. The second was completely full at the finish. Just another sign of how much cooler it was this year than last year. At least I didn’t have to make any water stops at all in this section (unlike both of the past two years)!The climb up to the St. John’s Bridge was a killer, but I managed to do it in the 39×21 gear (this is where a 23T really would’ve been nice). From there, it was the usual nine or ten miles of riding through city streets to the finish.My overall time through this section, from St Helens to the finish, was about a minute and a half faster than last year. It was as tedious as ever, especially the stretch through city streets, with all the stopping at red lights, but this time I felt less stressed ─ perhaps because I wasn’t rushing to beat an ambitious time goal, and was instead focused on enjoying cruising to the finish.A few miles from the end, a panhandler was sitting in the concrete median at an intersection. Instead of giving him money, I emptied my jersey pockets of surplus granola and Cliff bars. He seemed grateful. I hoped a lot of other cyclists would think to do the same.Rolled across the finish with a HUGE smile on my face at 5:43 pm, or 15.90 MPH on total elapsed time. No matter how many times I do the STP, or how tired I am, the sense of pure joy at the end is the same.I was the 56th fastest of the 252 finishers who used timing chips (the fastest rider with a timing chip was 10:26), giving me an official elapsed time of 12:57:08. In terms of time on the bike, it was 11:12:50. That means I was off the bike, or at stop lights, for about an hour and three quarters.At the finish line, I dropped my bike for a free cleaning at the WD-40 booth; they did a really nice job getting all the road grime off. Picked up my bag, then ate a Hammer recovery bar and took all the post-workout supplements Hammer recommends. I got some Mexican food and a Coke using the $10 food voucher that was included in the price of the ride; it wasn’t as much food as I would’ve liked, but enough to quell my appetite for a bit. Finally, stopped by the Cascade booth and got my free t-shirt, which was also included in the price of the ride this year.Rode a few blocks to the Motel 6, and checked in. The clerk said I was one of the first STPers to get there, which made me feel better about my ride time. Took a good long shower, changed clothes, and realized I was still very hungry. Walked a couple of blocks to Burgerville, and got a bacon cheeseburger with fries. Tasted great, and I drank a ton of water with it. Didn’t realize just how thirsty I was. Walked back to the motel, and went to bed early.Woke up at 6:30am or so, feeling tired but not especially sore. Went to the 7am Mass at Holy Rosary church, a beautiful place just a few blocks from my motel. That finished up around 7:45am. Got a few sausage burritos and an order of hashbrowns at McDonald’s, and a big cup of coffee at Starbucks across the street. Then went back to the motel, got my bike, and rode across the bridge to downtown Portland so I could pick up a rental car at Hertz. Drove back to the motel, got my stuff, and was on the road soon after.A little north of Tacoma, I took state roads to work my way north and east to Carnation. Went to Remlinger Farms, parked, and took a nice 15 mile recovery ride around that area. Rode my bike across the Tolt River, then south through Snoqualmie Valley farmland. The sun had come out in full glory, and I savored every moment pedaling along my favorite roads.I drove from there to my cousin’s house in Bellevue, where several family members had gathered for a cookout. It was absolutely wonderful spending a Sunday afternoon with them and getting caught up. We grilled some chicken and lamb chops that I’d brought out from the farm, and we enjoyed a goat cheddar that Mrs Yeoman Farmer had made from our own milk and had aged in our basement for a full year.After dinner, I packed up the bike in the same cardboard box I’d shipped it out in, and dropped it at FedEx on Bellevue Way. Drove across I-90 to Seattle, and then drove around downtown seeing the sights. Took Highway 99 down to Sea-Tac, arriving plenty early for my red-eye flight home. Getting through the airport and security went much faster this year than last, so I had a lot of time to kill at the gate. Boarded as soon as my section was called, settled into my window seat, and was asleep as the wheels went up.
Overall, a fantastic trip! Can hardly wait to go back again next year!