Hundreds of cyclists in my round wait to cross the Lewis and Clark bridge on day 2
The Group Health Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic organized by the Cascade Bicycle Club is a one or two day 325km summer ride from Seattle to, surprise, Portland. 10,000 cyclists take part every year with the event selling out early. I did it in July last year and finally have gotten around to writing about it. I’ll share my thoughts on the ride, and hopefully useful tips if you’re new to cycling the distance. Partway through you might be gritting your teeth wondering why oh why are you dragging your butt up a hill in the rain, but you’ll be amazed at yourself when you reach that finish line intact and proceed to celebrate your awesomeness.
This post is two parts – the first is about the ride itself, and the second are tips that you might find useful if you’re new to cycling or you haven’t done the STP ride before. Also most exciting to me is the introduction of my first official blog videos! After a year of procrastination I have learned how to use my video editing software to bring you badly edited but hopefully still useful video captured by a GoPro Hero2. Photos taken using my old point and shoot camera for the ride. I contemplated bringing my SLR but glad I didn’t because the ride was long and I already felt heavy enough!
The day before the ride
I took the Amtrak train to Seattle and it was a leisurely 5 1/2 hours ride from Vancouver. If you want a stress free no waiting forever at the border experience, try the train. It’s a beautiful ride that goes along the coast and when you reach the border crossing you don’t have to leave the train, immigration officials come on board, and off you go again. For more information such as train schedules and prices, check out their website.
Getting off at King Street station in Seattle, I had to go to REI to pick up my race package first. It was quick and I got my package in less than 15 minutes. Inside I got my race numbers for myself, bike and helmet, STP guide and map book, some butt butter (which proved very very useful – see recommended gear below) and an atrocious looking yellow free jacket that smelled like PVC (you know that new shower curtain smell?). Since I had brought my own shell, the jacket was donated to another lucky soul.
Then I had to get to the University of Washington to their dorm housing, and I now know that Seattle University is unfortunately not the same thing. After asking for directions and hopping on a bus that would take me there (there are bike racks on the front of most buses) the next navigation challenge popped up. Arriving on campus, there was no obvious signage I could find that lead the way to the dorms. Several people I asked walking by didn’t have a clue either. Luckily I happened to come across some other STP cyclists looking for the dorms, one of them had her phone and GPS on and finally we found the place. I think there should have been better signage out, if you are planning on staying in the dorms the night before the ride it would be best to print out a map with the directions or even better if you’re navigation challenged like me plug the address into a GPS device.
All dressed up and… where we going?
At 6am I rolled out the door to the start line. Baggage check was easy, just make sure if you’re a two day rider to load your luggage on the right truck that stops at the midpoint.
Then joining the next start wave I was off. I always find it thrilling to be a part of a large group of cyclists at the start pedaling together. Strength in numbers! The first and really only scenic part of the ride for day 1 would be cycling along Lakeside Avenue past Lake Washington. The rest of the journey would mostly take place along highways or strip malls, and not very scenic.
The STP ride is mostly flat except for this one hilly part that was more a gradual incline than steep. In the STP guidebook the description read “When leaving Puyallup you will encounter THE HILL”. No need to psyche yourself out. I kept my cadence high, and gears easy (no shame for the granny gear!) and it wasn’t as bad as people were making it out to be.
The last hour or so to the midpoint Centralia was along a separate trail and the sun came out which was nice, but the trail was quite narrow. Watch out for the cyclists zooming by, I was definitely doing my shoulder checks before passing.
Off we go!
One of the nicer parts of the ride. On the trail nearing Centralia the midpoint.
Reaching Centralia after about 9 hours I was greeted with a water sprinkler that I more than happily rode through, a bottle of chocolate milk and an orange flavoured popsicle. My knee also was acting up and I was relieved to have it iced at the first aid station close by. At about 100km I started to feel stabs of pain outside my left knee, and upon reaching Centralia the first aid attendant informed me that my IT band was probably inflamed. Boo. I was determined not to back out though, so I lowered my seat a bit as it may have been too high and added extra stress to my knee, and the next day I would cycle with an easier gear and not push it. Better slowly and surely than not finish at all was my reasoning.
The video below show clips from day 1. The beginning of the ride heading out of Seattle was nice, going along the water. After that it was mostly cycling along highway and not particularly scenic. Then the last part heading into Centralia was nice along a trail. The best part though was definitely the water sprinklers cooling you down for the day! Oh and the orange popsicles they were handing out to celebrate round one complete.
At 5.30am still in darkness I made my way on the final leg of the ride to Portland. Since I was going to be slower keeping in mind my knee, an earlier start made sense. Day 2 seemed more relaxed than day 1, also the roads we were cycling on were nicer. It was misty with light rain in the morning, but I enjoyed a fried egg sandwich at the first food stop which really got my legs going and the rest of the ride didn’t feel as difficult as day 1. The sun even came out to play later in the day.
After a morning of mist and rain, the sun shines in the afternoon.
240km into the ride it was time to cross the bridge with the scary expansion joints that I heard about from veteran STP riders. The awesome part was that the organizers closed one road of the bridge to accommodate and they grouped us in groups of hundreds crossing in waves. It was pretty amazing to see all of us making our way over the bridge. The expansion joints were fine to cross, just do it carefully. I also ensured my bottle was secured properly in the bottle cage, a tip I was given, and cycling past the many water bottles on the roadside that had fallen out from the bumps I was glad I didn’t lose mine.
Approaching the Lewis and Clarke bridge crossing
The next exciting part was then crossing St. John’s bridge at the 312km mark and entering Portland. I was definitely ready to cross that finish line but another 10km was left squished onto a small shoulder of the road with lots of stopping and starting from traffic lights. The constant stop and go gave my knee hell. Finally after the last traffic light I saw that big red FINISH sign, exhaled a WHOOP, collected my STP finisher patch and sat my tired butt on the ground for a good few minutes while I soaked up the fact that I just rode more than 300km from Seattle to Portland with a crappy knee halfway through. Yay me! To celebrate, I ate a delicious plate of fried beef noodles from one of the many food stalls at the finish line.
Crossing St. John’s bridge into Portland
This video shows clips from day 2. While crossing the Lewis and Clark Bridge, I returned the video to regular speed to show the stranded water bottles on the roadside. While the weather started out rainy in the morning, it was really nice to have it change to sun for the rest of the afternoon until the end of the ride.
Sweet sweet success! Celebrating reaching the finish with fried noodles and hot sauce.
If this is your first big ride I can understand you’re a little nervous perhaps, wondering if you’ve chomped more than you can chew. I say go for it! I saw all sorts of folks complete this ride, so I really believe anyone can do it with the right mindset and prep. It’s not a race, it’s your ride. I hope the following tips help you, learn from my mistakes!
Tip #1: Train and put time in the saddle with the bike you’ll be using, cause if you don’t, then you pay for it.
This was my first big ride with Alexis, my commuting bike and she’s not speedy because she’s a classic. She glides by slow enough for you to appreciate her beauty, but fast enough that I, by the laws of gravity, don’t end up kissing pavement. But that was my first mistake, the longest ride I had done with my back then new bike was my regular 20km commute to work.
After blasting my body with a sudden 150km+ ride for two days, I ended up with sharp knee pain on the outside of my left knee from an inflamed IT band. It took at least 2 months of consistent stretching and massaging before the pain went away, and another 3 months before I could do any physical activity (especially with downward movement like hiking downhill or going down stairs) pain free. Not smart. Save yourself the injury and train for the mileage. Also when you train try to use the same of everything – for example, don’t suddenly use new shoes for the ride. If you want to have a good ride, you need to be used to your gear. Make sure you bike and saddle are adjusted to optimal position. You’ll be riding for hours for two days, comfort is key.
Tip #2: Recommended gear & tune your bike
It’s a good idea to tune your bike before the big ride so that you know everything is in good working order. For gear, less is more as they say. But still have the essentials. I’d recommend the following:
- Bike lights (front and back) – for those reeeeeally early mornings you’ll be getting up for the early start
- Rain shell / cycling jacket
- Rain booties
- Patch kit (know how to use it and fix a flat)
- Sun screen
- Small backpack that can hold energy bars / gels and extra water
- At least two water bottles in cages (make sure they’re secure and not loose)
- Sunglasses / Eye protection (especially if you wear contact lenses)
- Cycling gloves
- Butt Butter (or if you want to be classy about it Chamois Cream, this really saves you and your wahooty from chafing)
Tip # 3: Build core, back and upper body strength
Cycling is all about strong sexy legs right? Yes. But if you also have a strong core, back and upper body then you’ll have an easier time especially for longer rides. During the STP I found my upper body strength lacking, my triceps felt like they were especially struggling to hold my upper body in upright position after a few hours of continuous cycling.
Tip #4: Food
If you eat healthy, you might want to bring your own bars / energy gels for backup. The snack choice from day 1 I found particularly unhealthy – lots of super high in sugar processed food for grabs. I would have preferred Clif gels or bars – there was a stop that Clif bar sponsored but the lineup was really long I opted to miss it. The stops on day 2 were much better and not as congested, probably because all the gung ho one day riders were done and the more chilled out two day riders were left! I thought the food options were better on day 2 as well, more sandwiches and goodies.
Can’t be choosy when hungry. An example of the snacks I inhaled during one pit stop (and felt a little sick after).
Tip #5: Don’t rush yourself, be aware, and enjoy!
On day 1 I saw a crash in motion, a person on the ground that might have broken her arm falling off her bike, and the remnants of one crash with ambulances on site and mangled bike parts. Scary but it happens, when thousands of cyclists ride together and not everyone is at the same level of experience accidents can be waiting to happen. Shoulder check before you try and pass someone, and say “On your left” when you do.
Unless you’re one of the one-day riders blasting through on your carbon bike that seems to be zero gravity, I say pace yourself and take time to enjoy the view (for the parts with a view). I saw all sorts of people on all sorts of bicycles do this ride; a favourite view is the recumbent bicycling family with kids that are either super excited to be doing this with their parents, or just super excited parents with pouty kids in the middle. You don’t have to be an elite cyclist on the best road bike to finish this ride successfully. Success to me I define by reaching the finish line in one piece and the food stalls still open!
Enjoy the sights along the way. Like this random “egg” monument.
Tip #6: Bring some cash
There aren’t very many official food and drink stops and I was thankful to come across a small stand selling cold bottled water for $1 when I had run out of water myself. Food is free at the official food stops, which feel like few and far between when you start getting thirsty, hungry and tired. The multiple mini-stops might save you from energy crashing until you reach the next official rest stop.
My hearty “logger breakfast” to aid my recovering muscles post-ride the next morning! Heavenly.
The sun sets on the train ride home from Portland back to Vancouver.
After the ride I only stayed for another day before heading back via the Amtrak train again to Vancouver which was a relaxing 9 1/2 hour journey. I definitely want to make my way back to Portland and really walk around the city and eat from all the food carts I keep hearing about!
The STP ride was challenging to do, but it was well supported and the registration fee is reasonable ($110 for non-members for 2012) for such a large ride. It’s overall not a scenic ride with most of it being along highway and I could do with more food stops that stocked better quality food for all stops. Then again with 10,000 riders to feed (and probably some stragglers) I suppose going all out on food would be at a big cost and the ride is the main fundraising event for the Cascade Bicycle Club that does great work, so one can suck it up, eat the food and bring some bars. I don’t think I’ll be doing the ride again, but if you haven’t done it and you’re curious it’s a great supported experience.