As the afternoon sun baked the blacktop Sunday afternoon, I pulled my bike to the side of U.S. Route 30 and made a beeline for the shade of a nearby tree. It was a withering 94 degrees, and I’d been in the saddle since 5:30 a.m. If I’d jumped in a pool, I wouldn’t have been any more soaked.
I sat down in the dirt, 188 miles into the journey I’d started in Seattle the day before. The finish line of my ride, the annual Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic, lay 17 more miles ahead. I chugged a Gatorade, my third of the day, and walked over to a faucet volunteers had set up for riders to refill their water bottles.
Nearby, an older lady sat in a chair, wielding a hose. I set down my backpack and motioned her to turn the nozzle on me, letting out a high-pitched gasp when the icy cold water soaked my head. I turned around and let it run down my back, feeling suddenly refreshed.
I walked back over to my bike, my butt protesting from two days in the saddle, the pain in my neck and shoulders just barely kept in check by Icy Hot. Gingerly, I mounted up and pedaled south. On to Portland.
My STP journey started in March, when I proposed riding the event as part of a feature story for The Chronicle. I signed up, then spent the intervening months totally neglecting to train. A week before the event, I still hadn’t worked out any logistics. I hadn’t even been on a bicycle more than a couple times all year.
“I’m a little worried for you,” said Cascade Bicycle Club executive director Richard Smith, when I called to ask his advice before the ride. “Accept that your lack of preparation may impact your ability to complete the ride. … I’d love to see you succeed and finish, but I would say your approach is not the ideal approach.”
Nonetheless, I found myself riding to the University of Washington Saturday morning as the sunrise cast Mount Rainier in pastel light. Countless cyclists queued up at the starting line near Husky Stadium, part of the 10,000 participants who attempt the ride each year.
I spotted Smith giving direction to some riders and introduced myself as the “idiot reporter” he’d talked to on the phone. He looked over my bike, which I’d borrowed from a generous friend the day before.
“Rookie mistake,” he said, pointing out the worn tread on the tires.
Then, we were off. I pedaled along with the pack, most of them clad in Lycra shorts, bike jerseys and cycling shoes. I was wearing sneakers, running shorts, and a T-shirt. I felt like an imposter, because, well, I was one. Did I have any business riding with these cycle-crazy die-hards?
I started tenuously, not used to riding in the middle of a pack. Before long, the route sent us zooming down a series of sinuous hillside turns. Riders flew by me as I cautiously navigated the descent.
The ride flattened out as we pedaled along Lake Washington, and I settled into a steady pace. The water and the mountain provided a scenic backdrop, and the still-cool morning air completed the idyllic setting. In Rainier Beach, local residents turned out in the streets to cheer us on.
We rode past the south shore of the lake and made our way through the not-so-scenic business parks of Renton and Kent. The occasional stoplight slowed our momentum, but it was still early enough that traffic wasn’t much of a factor.
Before I knew it, we’d already reached the first pit stop, part of a network of volunteer-run stations set up every 20 miles or so along the route. I grabbed some water, a bagel and a banana, then continued on my way.
After leaving the cities, we tracked our way through the farmland of the Kent Valley as the day started to heat up. Rainier stood over the countryside, looming just a little larger than it had in Seattle.
“I did that,” I thought. “I made the mountain grow.”
On we went, spinning our way through Auburn, reaching our second pit stop at a park in Puyallup. Skipping the long line at the port-a-potties, I rode a few more blocks until I found a church garage sale that was offering STPers the use of their facilities.
After another stretch of mostly residential riding, we pulled into Spanaway, where our next stop marked the halfway point of the day. I grabbed a sandwich and some snacks from some volunteers at a local school, not lingering long as I knew the day would only get hotter.
Fifty-four miles in, my rear end was more than a little saddle sore, and I’d be getting on my bike a little more gingerly with each consecutive stop. My neck and shoulders were screaming, not used to the unusual posture of hunching over the handlebars. My legs were mostly fine, the payoff of months of hiking and trail running. Still, with each slight twinge of a hamstring or knee, I worried about getting through the full 205 miles without injury.
After lunch, we followed a road through Joint Base Lewis-McChord, winding through forest with occasional firing ranges on either side. In one spot, a sign warned us not to venture into the woods, given the live grenades in the vicinity.
We left the base and pressed on to McKenna, where another pit stop offered us misters to cool off. Locals sold snacks, joining entrepreneurs throughout the route capitalizing on a moving economy of 10,000 calorie-starved bikers.
In Yelm, I bought some lemonade and ice cream from a family whose front yard sits along the route. After cruising through town, STP runs along the Yelm-Tenino Trail, a 14-mile paved route between the two communities. The trail had been cut back enough to offer no shade, but the forest and brush were too thick to offer any views. On the other hand, the trail had no stoplights.
Tenino greeted us with free cookies, as locals sold a plethora of other snacks. Like many other stops — official and unofficial — STP is a fundraiser for school sports teams, community groups and charities. Riders are more than happy to pay for a cold drink or a candy bar.
We followed country roads until we crossed into Lewis County, making our way into Centralia and down Pearl Street. At 101 miles in, we were halfway through the ride, and most riders stopped at Centralia College to socialize, camp out and get a night of sleep before taking on the latter half of the journey.
Unlike most of my cycling counterparts, I would not be pitching a tent at the college. After a brief ride-through to see the scene, I biked two blocks back to my house — my STP home-field advantage. After a cold shower, I could feel my energy levels evaporating. The nearest estimate I could find was that I’d burned 7,000 calories during my ride. I hurried to make up some of that deficit before I fell asleep, scarfing down three dinners worth of food.
After a generous application of Icy Hot, I called it a night, abandoning my plans to check out the festivities at the college. It took some time to find a position that wasn’t painful, but I eventually conked out, my 5 a.m. alarm coming all too soon.
I wheeled my bike to the sidewalk and winced as I mounted up. My backside was in serious pain. The only way to fix it is to ride, the miles and the effort redirecting your focus, your pain thresholds slowly ticking upward.
Riding by the college, I saw hundreds of tents still filled with slumbering riders. But a line of early risers was already extending down the road, a chain that would continue unbroken for hours to come. I fell into the pack as the sunrise glow grew brighter, and we wound our way to Chehalis until a train crossing stopped our momentum.
We passed the tents of more STPers at Recreation Park, then crossed over Interstate 5 and headed toward Napavine. Lewis and Cowlitz Counties offered up some of the event’s best riding, scenic country roads with rolling hills and almost no traffic. We had plenty of room to space out and enjoy the views, and it didn’t hurt that we were rolling through before the heat of the day.
My strategy for Day Two was a little different. Rather than settling into the pace of whoever happened to be ahead of me, I decided to find a cyclist I thought I could keep up with, then follow him or her as they weaved in and out of the pack. I’d be pedaling harder, but I planned to take more breaks, stop for longer and eat much more food.
I pushed up hills and zipped down descents, moving steadily ahead. I passed some cyclists and was passed by others. None of my pace-setters throughout the day seemed to notice or mind that they had a stalker.
Despite the constant pain, I was starting to feel like I wasn’t too out of place in STP. I might not have looked the part, and the lingo and hand motions were still foreign to me, but I wasn’t bringing up the rear or walking my bike up the hills.
“STP is not a race,” the ride’s website says, and it’s as much of a social event for riders as a competitive one. But for as daunting as the event had seemed beforehand, I was watching people much older than me, much younger than me and much pudgier than me pedal their way south. Sure, they were probably more accustomed to long hours in the saddle, but I was too stubborn to let a little — OK, a lot — of pain keep me from the finish line.
I had no trouble keeping to my fuel-up strategy Sunday, snacking on banana bread in Napavine, a breakfast sandwich in Winlock, a muffin in Castle Rock and a turkey wrap in Lexington. I guzzled water and Gatorade constantly, and the day began to swelter as Oregon approached.
We rode through Longview and turned toward the Columbia River. Incoming cars from Oregon lined one side of the Lewis and Clark Bridge. On the other, crossing over from Washington, was an endless rainbow of Lycra, a moving patchwork quilt of hundreds of bicycle jerseys. I fell into the pack and slowly pedaled my way up and over.
On the far side of the river, we were at our halfway point for the day, about 50 miles remaining between us and the finish line. These would prove to be the most difficult miles. By now, the temperature was soaring above 90 degrees, and we’d spend the entirety of the ride to Portland on Route 30, a busy highway with a narrow shoulder.
The sun beat down on us as we pedaled along the baking pavement, cars whizzing by and exchanging the usual honks and profanities. Getting stuck behind a slow rider meant waiting for traffic to clear, then making a mad dash to pass before another car approached from behind.
“Why did I think this was a good idea?” I began to wonder, looking around at the line of riders stretching as far as the eye could see. “How did 9,999 other people also think this was a good idea?”
I made my penultimate stop in St. Helens, loading up on sunscreen, Icy Hot and electrolytes. A dozen miles later, I pulled off in Scappoose, where a blast from the icy cold water hose recharged me for the final push.
After a few more miles, the rider in front of me pumped his fist as a sign announced the Portland city limit. I found myself doing the same. This wasn’t the Tour de France, but Portland traffic may as well have been our Champs-Elysees. We plodded our way through the streets, bicycles clotting each intersection, residents offering whoops and whistles from their front yards. A few commuters joined the pack on their neighborhood bike lanes, nonplussed to be sharing their everyday routes with thousands of STPers.
We turned onto the St. Johns Bridge and crossed the Willamette River, Mount St. Helens dead ahead. After a few more miles of neighborhood riding, we turned south toward Holladay Park. A few blocks from the finish line, the streets were lined with cheering crowds, some holding signs to encourage friends or family members.
Finally, we rode into the park under a giant banner and through a chute of high-fiving fans. I stopped in the grass and dismounted, mercifully, for the last time. After 205 miles, my Seattle start the day before seemed an eternity ago. I’d been on the road for more than 18 hours.
I tracked down Chronicle photographer Jared Wenzelburger, who had driven down to shoot the finish and shuttle me back to Centralia. I grabbed some food, loaded up my bike and sat — gingerly — in the passenger seat. Less than two air-conditioned hours later, I was back where I’d started that morning. I’d be exhausted Monday, sure. But at least I wouldn’t have to bike 100 miles.