Friday, July 20, 2007

Northwest trip and the STP

About a year ago, I described the Seattle-to-Portland (STP) bike ride to Megan, and she exclaimed, "let's do it!". "OK!" I said. "Let's do it in one day", she added. "Are you sure?" I asked. So we started training informally since early Spring, then really put in the time from mid-May to late June on the saddle. Time flies, and a little more than a week ago Megan and I packed our bags with cycling apparels and some change of clothing and hopped on the Amtrak train in Oakland.

We left Wednesday (7/11) night and the train was scheduled to get there by 9PM on thursday (7/12). The train ride was generally comfortable and the scenery was awesome, but both of us were tired from traveling the week before (we were visiting Megan's folks in the South). The train was seriously delayed, and we didn't get into Seattle until 1:30AM (close to 5-hour delay!). We put the bikes back together (on the Coastal Starlight line, Amtrak requires bikes to be boxed. The station has boxes; $10 for a new one, or no charge for a used one. We both opted for the latter, and paid $5 each for 'handling'. The boxes are tall enough that all you need to do is to take off the pedals, turn you handlebar sideways, and roll the bike into the box) and headed for our hotel along 1st avenue in the Belttown district of Seattle.

It was thursday night and Belttown has a club scene. Even though it was close to 2 in the morning, club-goers still litter the street. Most of them were minding their own business, but we did get a couple of benign hassling--"Tour de France is in Europe", for example. We got to the hotel on 1st and Wall and stopped to ring the bell. No one responded. I called the front desk, and no one picked up. Finally, we were let in by 3 party-going guests. After calling, knocking on doors (where the night-shift guy supposedly stayed), and calling some more, we decided to try to get some rest on the couch in the lobby. Hotel guests came and went, and no one came to ask us why we were staying in the lobby.

Finally, in the morning, the cleaning lady showed up and got the night-shift guy for us. He was obviously very embarrassed and apologetic. He gave us keys to our room and we got some short but much needed rest. After cleaning up, we stepped out to do some errands. The manager of the hotel apologized profusely and told us that we wouldn't be charged for the room (I certainly hope not!) and he will "take care" of us if we come to stay next time. Overall the hotel is very nice, and even though they screwed up, they handled it pretty well. I would consider staying there again in the future (and make sure that I get there before 12).

We ran some errands in the morning on our bikes, including picking up our STP packets at the Seattle downtown REI (it's huge! this store is an attraction by itself), and after checking out, we rode our bikes to College Inn in the University District, close to the starting line of STP.

[the picture shows my Specialized Expedition Deluxe in front of the door of College Inn, which is an European-style hotel. I brought my Carradice Carradura saddle bag with quick release with me]

My friend Joseph is finishing up his PhD at University of Washington, so we met up with him. He took us to this vegan buffet on the corner of University Way and 43rd. It was really god and just the kind of carbo-loading we needed.

After lunch Megan went back to the hotel to take a nap while I rode around the neighborhood a little bit to figure out the route to the starting point in the morning. I was also trying to find a map case. I went to Performance bike first, and the summer workers there didn't even know what I was talking about. One of them did point me to Recycled Cycles near by, which is such a nice bike shop. They have lots of cool parts and bikes, such as a red Murray track bike hanging from the ceiling. The workers there know their stuff, but unfortunately, the shop didn't have a stand-alone map case either.

Although we were still pretty full from lunch, we pre-paid for a buffet meal at Whole Foods for dinner, so we went and ate some more. We got back to the hotel at around 7:30pm. After getting all our stuff ready, we went to bed.

The excitement/anxiety kept me from sleeping deeply and I got up by 3:30. I woke Megan up 20 minutes later and we got ready to go. After some breakfast at 4:30 (since virtually everyone staying at the hotel was there for the bike ride), we got on our bikes and rode the 5-minute trip to the starting point (at the E1 parking lot behind UW's Husky Stadium). There were so many cyclists there and people were waiting at the starting line to get started.

[The picture shows Megan and I near the starting line. The picture is blurry because it is still pretty dark at the time]

At 5:05AM, we and maybe 200 other cyclists started our day's journey. There are so many cyclists around! The police pretty much blocked off all the roads for us and all of us were riding on city streets unimpeded. It was a wonderful feeling. We rode along the shore of Lake Washington all the way to the REI headquarter in Kent (mile 24).

[The picture shows the crowd at the Kent REI rest stop]

There were so many people at the rest stop. We used the porto-john, loaded up on some fruit, food, and drinks and got going. The riding was awesome in the morning; since there are so many riders on the road, and the terrain is so flat, there are so many packs of riders everywhere. You can join in pretty much anytime. if you get left behind by a stoplight, no worries, the next wave of riders are coming right behind you. Through most of the morning, we were riding at a pace of 16-22 mph.
The only real hill (though there were many rollers, especially in the afternoon) was at mile 43, near the town of Puyallup. It's about 7% grade for around a mile. Being used to the many and more serious hills in the Bay Area, this hill is not really all that daunting, though it was definitely a change from the flat terrains we have been riding up to that point.

Throughout most of the morning, we were riding on city streets through suburb towns. Near mile 70, the route takes us onto a long bike path. I commute daily in the city of San Francisco, so riding on the street does not unnerve me, especially when one is riding with such a big group. However, riding on off-street path is still very lovely. I did not bring enough fluids and electrolytes, and was starting to feel the onset of some fatigue and cramps. I had to stop several times to get water along the way.

Just a little before noon and with my trip meter topping 100 miles, Megan and I arrived at the town of Centralia, which is the mid-point of the ride and where we planned to have lunch.

The location of our lunch and mid-day festival is Centralia community college. At this point there are lots of things set up and the gear trucks were unloading stuff for the two-day riders, most of whom will be staying overnight in Centralia.

One small complain I might have about the STP is that the food is quite mediocre, especially for vegans. We ended up sharing a baked potato and ate some more of our energy bars. We left after sitting in the shade for a while.

The afternoon was tougher, mainly because for stretches it was quite hot. I remember a stretch before the first stop in the afternoon when i was dying from the heat. I didn't bring my own electrolyte (clif shots electrolyte really works for me) powder and gatorade barely works for me, so I started to cramp a little. The herd of cyclists has thinned out considerably, partly because many riders are actually two-day riders who got an early start, partly because the fast riders have gone on, leaving us slow-pokes to fend for ourselves. At this point I basically ride at a decent pace for a few miles, then have to get off my bike to stretch for a minute, then start again. I feel sorry for Megan, who doesn't have cramping problems, but was kind enough to wait for her worse half. After the first stop, the weather actually cooled off again, and helped me a lot. We were not riding at the brisk pace of the morning, but still going at about 15 mph. The rollers are more pronounced in the afternoon, too. I was punished for not pedaling through the first few, but smarted up afterward.

At this point, I pretty much have to stop at all the stop to get more water/sports drink. We got slightly lost at one point following a group of riders. It seems that it might be an alternate route because I saw some of them at a later stop. We went for about 2 miles off route, got off our bikes, read the map, and decided to retrace our steps. Up to that point, we have been simply following folks and the signs on the ground, but after getting lost a bit, we decided to read the maps more carefully.

So we rode (and I struggled with cramps) for a while, until we got to the Lewis and Clark Bridge with about 60+ miles to go. I think it was between 3-4 in the afternoon and we began to face the prospect of not getting there before dark (my fault, of course). I could actually still ride at a good pace at that point, but my legs would cramp after some miles, by which point I have to get off, stretch for a minute, and start again. I have had this problem before, and know how to manage it and complete a ride, only it slows me (and Megan) down.

The bridge itself was fun (another aside, one of my bottle cage broke off, so I had to carry one of the bottles in my back pocket, which is already cramped with arm warmers, clif cars, and other stuff), and it was windy. I really enjoyed the Columbia River when I was on the bridge. The weather was cool now, and that was really good.

We got onto HWY 30 at this point, going east toward Portland, we will spend the next 45 miles on this freeway. It goes through towns near Portland, and has a wide shoulder, but the cars drive fairly fast on it. Although there were some variation of scenery and terrain, it was fairly monotonous. We now are just trying to get there as early as we could, knowing that we cannot get there before 9PM. We still see quite a bit of folks on the road and at rest stops, which gives us comfort that we weren't the very last ones, and that there are people on the road with us.

Even though STP was a very well-supported ride, many riders still had their own personal-support vehicle. Megan and I feel somewhat annoyed by it, as there are more cars than necessary on the road. I kind of understand that friends and family want to accompany the riders on the road. Maybe the STP can arrange some sort of vanpool for companions of riders who want to do that. There were still a few stops along the route in the last miles, and we stop and eat and drink, and generally see the same group of riders who are presumably like us, just trying to finish the ride. There is some solidarity in that.

About 30 miles from the finish, we were on a especially wide and fast portion of HWY 30. Megan was ahead of me (not very far) and all of a sudden I saw a large coke cup flying between my body and my bike. It missed me and hit the side of the road, and ice and liquid splashed. I looked over and saw a black pickup truck pulled ahead fast and exited at the next ramp. Apparently I had been the target of a "hit-a-cyclist" prank, except the prankster had bad aim (luckly me!). Megan was upset about it. I was just happy that it didn't actually hit me. Sun is setting about this time. We still had some daylight but not very bright at this point.

With about 15 miles to go, we finally see some semblance of a big city. We rode through neighborhoods and districts. At one point we crossed one of the many bridges in Portland to NE Portland. By now we had a band of cyclists following us, and we all chatted with each other and said things of encouragement as we all figured out the end is near. I am fairly used to riding in the dark and in city traffic, so they stayed behind me and followed my lead. We got to Lloyd Center finally around 9:30pm. The cheering crowd (mostly family members of people who are still on the road) cheered for us, and one volunteer handed us a patch for finishing. Megan and I are tired but happy that we did it. We stretched slightly and went to grab our luggage at the Double Tree hotel next to the park. There seems to be still a few bags there, signaling that we weren't the last group. We put our bags on our bikes and walked 2 blocks to the motel I made a reservation at. Over there, another group of fellow STP'ers were arguing with the hotel management about a reservation the motel apparently didn't get: there was no vacancy left, but apparently someone over the phone promised something to these folks. They were kind enough to suspend their arguments and let me grab my keys first. Fortunately, the group already had one room, but now they just had to squeeze.

We got into our rooms, took a shower, drank some fluid, and fell over and passed out. We did our first double century (actually it was 210 miles, according to both of our cyclometers, maybe because we were lost for a little bit). We were really happy! It was a lot of fun!