The Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic (STP), organized by the Cascade Bicycle Club, is one of the 10 longest recreational rides in the nation.
But for one year it was a race. There were 59 participants in the inaugural ride in 1979, and the winner was Jerry Baker. Then the club decided to take the competitive element out and make it a fun event.
Baker is the only person to ride in the STP every year. At age 70, he still bikes about 150 miles a week and completes the ride to Portland in one day, but he fulfilled his need for speed the year he raced. Since then, it’s been more about socializing than proving anything.
“You just ride along and have a good time. I’m real good at talking,” Baker said.
While Baker is happy to ride for 15 hours to finish the STP, others like to go faster by drafting. Drafting is a technique of biking closely behind another person to break the force of the wind and increase your speed up to 30 percent.
“When you draft, you follow pretty close, and if the person in front of you slows down or there is a bump in the road it’s pretty easy for them to knock you down. There is more likely to be an accident, especially as you get more tired,” Baker said. “It’s a very diverse group riding the STP. Some people know what they’re doing and some people don’t. I have to be cautious because you don’t repair as fast when you’re 70 as you do when you’re 30 or 40.”
Twenty-something athletes like John Pollard insist that drafting is essential to completing the STP. “In a perfect world, you would be in a pace line (a long line of riders who are drafting) the entire time,” he said. “The last time I did the STP, I spent the first 100 miles in a pace line. Then, as the race progressed, I would hang out with a group for a while and then fall off and ride on my own, and then catch up with another group and ride with them.”
Pollard is among the group of one-day riders who are in such good physical condition that they don’t train especially hard for the STP. He plays hockey on a team, lifts weights and does yoga, but cycling fits into a recreational and social category in his life. In fact, when he rode the STP for the first time three years ago, he was surprised that it wasn’t more physically challenging. Having ridden the High Pass Challenge, in which cyclists climb over 7,500 feet in elevation while riding more than 114 miles, the 26-year-old said the hardest part about the STP was that his bottom was sore at the end.
Though most people are impressed when they hear that he is riding the STP in one day, Pollard said there are many who do it without training hard.
Ninety percent of the participants in the STP ride it in two days. With so many people at the starting line, organizers send riders off in 10-minute intervals. One-day riders start from 4:45 a.m. to 5:15 a.m. and two-day riders from 5:15 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Still, it is important to be cautious when surrounded by so many people on bicycles.
“I would rather ride all by myself or in a small group, but it’s kind of neat to have all those people around because there is a lot of energy. You can’t just open up and go fast, but as the day goes on everyone kind of spreads out a little and you can pass people,” said Lisa Felber, a 44-year-old nurse and mother of two who will ride the STP for the third time this year.
It was her friend Lorene Jansson who initially convinced Felber to ride the STP. Jansson signed up in 2009 to motivate herself to train.
“As I’m getting older, I’m finding that it takes more exercise to even maintain my desired level of fitness,” the 54-year-old mother of two said. “I just love being outdoors, and found in training for the STP that I love bike riding — you’re outdoors, you’re getting a good workout and you’re with friends so you chat about things. It’s just a great way to get exercise.”
Prior to training, Jansson thought 14 miles was a long way to ride her bicycle.
“A lot of it ends up being a mental thing. If you’re preparing for 19 miles mentally, you can do it. But if you have it in your mind that 19 miles is a long way, you’re going to poop out at mile 15,” she said.
With a third friend completing their training team, the women went on 25-mile rides for several months before bumping up the distance to 32 miles. “On Memorial Day we did a ride on Whidbey Island that was 50 miles of hills and it just about did us in,” Jansson said.
As the STP approached, the threesome rode 80 miles in one day. Then they did two back-to-back rides, peddling 70 miles one day and another 70 the next.
They completed the STP in two 12-hour days. “We just wanted to make it through,” Jansson said. “They were starting to tear everything down and it was pouring down rain, but we were so glad we had made it.”
In 2010, Jansson’s group completed the STP in two nine-hour days by drafting and taking fewer breaks.
“The second year, we finished midway with the pack of people and there was quite a festive atmosphere,” she said. “Both years were great, with just having the sense of accomplishment and doing it successfully.”
After training and adjusting her bicycle to make it more comfortable, Felber found the STP to be easier than she expected. “Two hundred miles seemed absolutely unbelievable, but you take all day to ride the first half of it and it was actually quite nice,” she said. “And we had trained for it, so we didn’t get super tired.”
It’s not about coming in first; it’s about finishing the ride, according to Jansson. “Just take it steady and at the level that you can do. Have a sense that this is fun, it is not a race. Just enjoy it,” she said.
Riding on one wheel
Kevin Williams was completing radiation treatment for a cancerous tumor in his left knee when he heard about a friend and his wife who were training for the 2005 STP.
“I couldn’t believe that his wife could ride that far,” Williams said. “She had heard about a guy finishing on a unicycle and she said, ‘If a guy can ride the STP on a unicycle, I can ride it on a bike.’”
Making the trek on a bike did not appeal to Williams, but riding a unicycle more than 200 miles was another story. He had delivered papers as a boy while riding one, and he was intrigued. After reading an article by Bruce Dawson, a unicyclist who completed the STP, he was determined to do it.
Williams was wiped out from radiation, and his leg was swollen from treatment and would remain that way for years. Still, he couldn’t let go of the idea of riding in the STP.
“I really felt like I had something to prove, that I wasn’t done,” Williams said. “I felt so abbreviated in so many ways.”
In 2009, he rode 150 miles of the STP before stopping. “It’s hard as hell to ride a unicycle 100 miles a day,” he said. “You can never coast.”
Though he did not complete the ride, Williams did not feel like he had failed. One benefit he enjoyed after training so hard was that the inflammation in his knee decreased and it returned to normal size, never to swell like that again.
“When you start doing that level of exercise, you open things up and they start working better,” he said.
Williams became one of five people to complete the ride to Portland on a unicycle in 2010 and 2011, and he is training again for this year.
“I get so excited thinking about the challenge of it, and the people on the ride make it that much more fun,” he said. “Everybody passes me on the first day, even the slowest bicyclist with the latest start. But I’m consistent and I will make it if I show up prepared.”
One group that exemplifies the spirit of camaraderie in the STP ride is the team of students and mentors from the Major Taylor Project.
Four years ago, five community leaders including former King County Executive Ron Simms started the Major Taylor Project with the goal of getting diverse youth from King County involved in cycling. Under the direction of Ed Ewing at the Cascade Bicycle Club, the group hosts after-school clubs in SeaTac, White Center, West Seattle, Rainier Valley and Burien.
Each club has a fleet of new bicycles for members to use in a 12-week riding program offered each spring. Students who complete the program are given the opportunity the following fall to complete a six-week program called “Earn a Bike.” After hands-on training in bike repair and maintenance, the teens get to keep the bike they work on during the program.
Though not a requirement, students in the Major Taylor Project are eligible to ride in the STP with full sponsorship. Ewing expects between 40 and 50 teens will ride alongside adult volunteers this year.
“It is an important component of the program to surround the student with positive role models, because if a student sees an adult doing the activity it becomes cool, and we also want them to be safe and well taken care of,” Ewing said.
Riding with teens in the STP made Ewing realize how much he takes for granted. Last year, he rode with two students who have never been outside of King County.
“They were trying to get their heads around the idea of crossing the Longview Bridge into Oregon, and it really dawned on me how much [the program] was expanding the students’ world and impacting them,” Ewing said. “In Seattle, we have such an educated base and community of corporate headquarters, and it’s a very livable, amazing city. But not all of the opportunities reach all communities. I didn’t know the extent of that until I developed the program and started working with the students and learning more about them and their families and backgrounds.”
Ewing estimates that 90 percent or more of the teens involved in the Major Taylor Project have never ridden more than three to five miles on a bike.
“We share the possibility of doing the ride in March and get a lot of comments like, ‘How could I do that?’ Then we share that 10,000 people do it every year and it’s just like anything in life, if you set goals and go for it you can achieve it,” he said. “Then to see them cross the [STP] finish line four months later is remarkable.”
Participants in the Major Taylor Project are divided into three groups for the STP: fast, medium and fun. “The only goals we have are that the students are safe and that they have fun,” Ewing said, adding that the kids get a lot of positive feedback from other cyclists on the route.
But the best support comes from each other. No matter how fast or slow a member rides, the team crosses the finish line together. The tradition began the first year when some of the boys got to Portland two hours ahead of everyone else, and one of them wanted to wait for everybody else.
“Last year, we had five students arrive three-and-a-half hours ahead of the rest, and they waited in a park with two adult volunteers until we could all finish the ride together,” Ewing said. “We will never turn down a student to ride, and never make it a failure if they have to get in the van and ride for 20 or 30 miles. If any student wants to try it, we absolutely say yes.”
Volunteers are posted all along the STP route to make sure everyone who wants to can say “yes” to the ride.
For more information, visit www.cascade.org.