By Becky Hadfield — Amit Kalatri wrote, “The smell of the sweat is not sweet, but the fruit of the sweat is very sweet.”
Seattle to Portland (STP) left me with some especially sweet fruit — personal satisfaction stemming from a long, grueling day of arduous work and persistence and a fruit basket of life lessons learned in the saddle.
Maybe you’ve never had the privilege of riding STP — the largest multi-day cycling event in the Northwest. Imagine 8,000 cyclists gathering before dawn with headlamps and bike lights in mid-July at the University of Washington and leaving in waves over the span of an hour, then weaving through backroads, military grounds, big highways and across scenic bridges for 206 miles. Most of the riders spend the night at the halfway point and enjoy an evening of camaraderie and celebration (and I doubt much sleep) before finishing the second century on Sunday. I chose to join the crazy ones (about 25% of the riders) and do the 206 miles all on Saturday, finishing at Holladay Park in Portland just in time for dinner. This is a ride, not a race. No timing chips; just Strava, if you choose to use it, which I’m sure everyone that rode it in one day chose. After all, we’re the crazy ones.
The Cascade Bicycle Club does an amazing job organizing the ride, which is an enormous feat involving mailing 8,000 rider packets, shuttles for cyclists and gear and bikes, parking and dormitory arrangements at the University of Seattle, 5 major rest stops with a full spread of food, mechanical support and first aid, plus 13 additional stops with water and snacks, a finisher’s event with booths, photo ops, merchandise and food trucks, countless volunteers and months of informative emails. The profits go to support bicycle education and outreach programs in the Seattle and Portland areas. I don’t live in Washington or Oregon, but I love this ride and love supporting cycling education, especially among school age children.
My first STP was back in 2018, ridden just 8 weeks after breaking my hand in a mountain bike crash. Despite less than stellar training, I was happy to be back on the bike, which was a perfect combination for riding with some less experienced cyclists I had invited along. In response to the heat wave that year, the Cascade Bicycle Club supplies all 8,000 riders with neck coolers and frequently placed ice buckets to help us keep cool in the 90+ degree weather. It worked wonderfully and the route supplied enough shade that the heat did not detract at all from our experience. Somewhere after the 100-mile mark, our less experienced friends started feeling the pain of spending all day in the saddle and we had to band together to pull them to the finish line. The sacrifices made to help them succeed only added to our satisfaction and deepened friendships. That’s one of the great parts of STP being a ride, not a race: it’s okay to slow down, help a friend and enjoy the scenery.
That ride filled my bucket and I’ve been looking forward to round 2 for a couple of years. Unfortunately, STP was canceled in 2020 and 2021 but this year it was back in full swing, and we were determined to be there. I found 4 friends to join me and spent hours one night working out all the details of the transport. The drive out from our hometown is 13 hours, so we started Thursday afternoon loading bikes and heading to Idaho for the night. Friday, we finished the drive, found a great waterfall hike just outside of Seattle where we could stretch our legs and arrived in time to enjoy some great food at the University Village. This year we opted out of the dorm lodging because we had a coed group and wanted to be together. Instead, we booked a couple rooms in a nearby hotel and biked from there Saturday morning. I brought along my husband and son, who went mountain biking in the area Saturday, then drove down with all our gear and met us at the finish line. I recommend bringing your own shuttle driver if you come with a group, although I’ve spoken with a lot of people that had successful experiences using the event buses as well. Someday I’ll come back and try out the “party style” riding of a two-day event, complete with camping and bus shuttles.
Our group this year included three riders hoping for a 16-mph average and then me and Annie who were shooting for an 18+ mpg average. Luckily, there are so many people on the road that there is always someone your speed. You will never be without company at STP, even in the one-day event. This year, the coastal currents came through for us, delivering perfect weather in the mid 70s all day (even the 10 minutes of sprinkles were delightful). The ride begins on campus and soon weaves along a quiet road beside Lake Washington for ten miles. It is a perfect way to start any day. The views over the lake as the sun is rising are spectacular and inspiring. From there, it’s a game of watching for the neon road markings leading us toward the Army Joint Base Lewis-McChord at mile 58.
Annie and I made a great team — never hesitating to join other cyclists for some drafts and pulls. Finding a good group to ride with and contribute to is vital for endurance rides, even when it is not a race. There was some chatting on the road with our newly found friends and even more at each rest stop. Often, we found ourselves leaving the stops together to enjoy more teamwork on the road. The group fluctuated during the day, losing some and gaining others but there was always gratitude felt for the shared effort. Later in the day when we were all having to dig deep, I appreciated the encouraging words that were shared in the group.
At about mile 70, I was with a group that neglected to give sufficient hand signs up front and found myself on top of a nasty pothole with no time to adjust course. My back tire hit the rough edge hard and 100 yards later I realized I was going flat. That particular section of road had a half dozen cyclists pulled over fixing flats. Luckily, I’ve had experience changing a lot of flats in my years on a bike and this didn’t slow us down much. Annie stopped with me, and we were soon back on the road. There are always risks included with drafting and depending on others to point out road hazards is high on that list.
Annie and I welcomed the halfway point with gusto, ready for some serious refueling after 100 miles of electrolyte tablets and protein bars. There had been more food offered at the previous stops, but we were saving up for lunch. We came across a bike shop tent first. The mechanics drained the CO2 and re-aired my tires and even touched up the gears before we moved on in search of food. That’s a luxury left only for non-competitive rides. Thank you STP bike shops!
Some confusion transpired when we only found French fries and frozen KIND bars at this point. Those bars tasted like manna from heaven, but they aren’t a complete lunch. After a few minutes of investigation, we learned the “real” lunch stop was about 7 miles ahead. Apparently, we hadn’t studied the course map well enough and didn’t realize that the organizers separated the halfway point (Saturday finish line for two-day riders) from the one-day rider lunch. Those seven miles were fueled by the frozen KIND bars and to our delight, the real lunch was much more sufficient — well stocked piles of snacks, sandwich materials, fruits, and drinks.
The second half of a double century is always a mind game. Gautama Buddha said, “What you think, you become.” It’s in mile 101 that I choose to become a finisher. Yes, things hurt — occasional numbness in hands and feet and general muscle fatigue. But I’ve learned to refuel smartly over the years and to just keep pedaling. Knowing that everyone on the road was struggling in the same way brought comfort. We continued the give and take in the peloton. Coming from Utah, this ride is considered a flat, easy (because it’s at sea level) ride, but there are sections of rollers that add up to about 4500 feet of climbing — still not a lot of elevation, but also not flat. If you’re coming out to ride, be ready for the hills. There are plenty of them.
Miles slipped by and soon we found ourselves approaching the bridge over the Columbia River. Luckily, the endorphins that spiked upon crossing the state line into Oregon were just enough to power me over the surprisingly long climb over the bridge, and I absolutely loved flying down the other side. The views over the river were spectacular. Cycling the bridge required my concentration — stay in your lane and ignore the cars whizzing by, but remember to look around and notice how high over the water you are and how far you can see into beautiful Oregon. We noticed the road markers changed when we crossed the state line — they were no longer painted on the road but instead posted on signs, which took a little bit of adjusting to. Coming off the bridge, we began a forty-three mile stretch along the Columbia River Highway. Luckily, the shoulder is wide and there are some picturesque, forested sections that helped distract from the physical discomforts.
Somewhere in the last 30 miles, I met a group that didn’t allow help in their peloton. I rested adequately behind them and offered a pull but was told I could stay behind them or ride on ahead. My mind may not have been in its best form at that point of the day, and I took offense. The irritation kicked in and I took off ahead of them. Unfortunately, I didn’t give the rest of my group any warning and no one followed me. I was alone on the road, left to do all the work myself by my own choice. But sometimes in life, we are alone and only then do we really have time for introspection and correction. In the silence, ideas flowed and my mind was opened. Savor the friendships, but also the solitude. They are both to be cherished and desired.
That last bridge finally appeared, the Zipfizz (my favorite form of caffeine) was in full force, and I was on the homestretch. If only there were no red lights! There’s nothing quite as frustrating as stopping repeatedly at red lights after mile 195, but those red lights helped me to celebrate all the green lights with enthusiasm. And that’s my last life lesson of the day: opposition breeds gratitude. You never appreciate the tailwind (which I was later told we had riding that long highway) until you turn and face the headwind. After suffering through the final red light, 15 yards from the finish line, I clipped in for the last time and rode under the Finish Tunnel and through the long chute to the sounds of people cheering and ringing cowbells, and found my husband and son waiting there for me. After 11 hours of riding, I took my shoes and socks and helmet off, propped my bike up against a tree, and stood in the park splash pad rinsing off the day’s asphalt. And it felt amazing.
Sometimes, when I observe others’ hobbies, I wonder what possesses them. But when I pause to look inward, I must recognize that riding 200+ miles in one day seems a little crazy to most people. And I do it for fun. For cheap therapy. For friendships and for solitude. This is my medicine. After all, “Life is the most brutal endurance sport of all time,” (David Goggins) so excelling at endurance is key for everyday survival. This is your invitation to get outside and just keep pedaling! And if you’re ever in Seattle in July, pedal on over to STP for a ride you won’t regret.