10 tips from an STP veteran (Are you really ready for the ride?)
Cascade Bicycle Club's 204-mile Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic is this weekend, July 14-15. It's not a walk (or ride) in the park.
This weekend, 10,000 people will roll through two states in one of the nation's most famous cycling events, the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic.
It's not nearly the toughest ride in the Northwest or even the most challenging ride put on by Seattle-based Cascade Bicycle Club. But that's what makes it so alluring to so many people. It's long (204 miles), it spans two days (Saturday and Sunday, July 14-15) and two states and, while it has plenty of hills, it doesn't have any major climbs. But it's still a physical and mental challenge for most recreational riders.
It's not a race, so there's no pressure to go fast. And when you finish, it's hard not to feel a large sense of accomplishment.
It's no wonder this 33-year-old ride has become a bucket list item for so many people.
It's not a ride to take lightly (I did that once and it wasn't pretty, but more on that later). I've done this ride four times: the wrong way (twice), the hard way (all 200 miles in a day) and the right way.
While it can be intimidating, you can roll into Portland with a smile on your face if you stay smart. Here are 10 tips that will get you through.
1. BE PREPARED (OR TOUGH)
In 2009, I rolled into Portland feeling like I still had enough energy to pedal home. I'd pedaled about 2,000 miles the three months prior and logged a 100-mile training ride. I could sit in the saddle all day without discomfort. This is an ideal approach to the STP. But if you aren't already there, you can't get there by Saturday.
Instead, prepare yourself mentally. Realize it's going to be tough. Your legs will get tired and your butt will be sore. If you come to grips with these inevitabilities before they happen, you'll be better prepared to overcome them.
2. PICK UP PACKET EARLY
You can pick up your registration packet as early as 4:30 on Saturday morning, but why do that to yourself? You're going to be standing in toilet and food lines all day, why start your day with another one. You can pick up your registration packet Friday from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
3. START EARLY
Two-day riders can start the STP as early as 5:15 a.m. and as late as 7:25 a.m. There will be plenty of cyclists on the road whenever you start. But starting at 5:15 gives you the best chance to stay ahead of the masses, which is safer and arguably more enjoyable.
4. KNOW YOUR LIMITS
In 2007, when some buddies and I cranked out this ride in a day, we met a guy in McKenna, Thurston County, who asked if he could ride with us. He promised he knew how to ride in a pace line. He did not. Just two miles later, he slammed on his brakes without warning, sending the rest of us scattering to avoid him. Two of my riding partners hit the asphalt. After an hour of nursing scrapes and fixing bikes, we were back on the road at a pace fast enough to drop our new friend. Don't be that guy. And, just as importantly, look out for that guy. That's not to say you shouldn't ride with strangers. Meeting and riding with new people from around the world is one of the true joys of the STP.
5. RESPECT THE RIDE
A year after doing the ride in a day, I decided to ride 150 miles the first day and 50 miles the second. This seemed so much easier to me that I didn't really train, and I was overweight and out of shape for the pace planned. On the first day, temperatures reached 90 degrees and my friends decided to hold a late morning pace of about 21 mph for about two hours. At the 100-mile mark, everything from waist down started cramping. While friends refueled in Centralia, and rolled on to our hotel in Longview, I was yelping in pain in the medic tent. My wife drove me the next 50 miles. When I reached Portland the next morning, I was so ashamed that I cut off a fourth of my "finisher" patch. My wife mocks me to this day.
6. CENTRALIA: VISIT, DON'T STAY
Centralia College is 99 miles into the ride and the most commonly used overnight spot for two-day riders. It's a great scene with participant tents and vendor booths filling the college's courtyard and it's a perfect place to stop for a meal. But if making this ride is a challenge for you, don't overnight here. Continuing just another five miles to Chehalis' Recreation Park can be a psychological boost. Staying in Chehalis means you're more than halfway to Portland and the second day will be easier (or at least shorter) than what you've already done. Want to make Day 2 even easier? You can camp or stay at hotels even closer to Portland.
7. GO SLOW
It's not a race, so why rush? Take your time and enjoy conversation with other riders and don't hurry through food stops (but don't linger so long that your legs tighten up). In 2005, I rode my first STP in two days on a 44-pound mountain bike, while carrying a backpack loaded with, among other things, my laptop. I didn't even do a training ride longer than 30 miles. When I told a veteran cyclist about this, he offered this critique: "You're an idiot." Nevertheless, by taking my time and resting when I felt miserable, I made it to Portland in time for dinner.
8. EAT AND DRINK
The quickest way to turn what should be a fun weekend into a sufferfest is to not eat or drink enough. Getting your nutrition right will keep you feeling good and your pace consistent. A sports nutritionist once passed along some STP nutrition advice to me that seemed to work. Start loading up on carbs like breads, pastas, fresh fruit, veggies and low-fat yogurt five days before the ride. Eat a snack three hours before you ride and start eating about 30 minutes into your ride. The nutritionist also recommended drinking enough that your pee is "the color of clear lemonade" throughout the ride.
9. CARRY CASH
Cascade Bicycle Club does a very good job with its food stops along the course and they'll almost assuredly throw enough food and drink your way to fuel your journey. But if you don't like the flavor of their energy drinks or if it upsets your stomach, you're going need to stop for something that you like better. There are plenty of gas stations and grocery stores along the way to get what you want. You'll also find several pay food stops along the way put on as fundraisers by groups not affiliated with the ride. At these stops, you'll find everything from Gatorade to pancakes to, my favorite, banana bread in Napavine, Lewis County. A little cash also is helpful if you need to buy an extra tube or pay a technician for a repair along the way.
10. BUY THE T-SHIRT
A "finisher" T-shirt will set you back about $20. But if it's your first time, it's worth it. Finishing a 204-mile bike ride is definitely worth bragging about.