Part II: Seattle
The ferry from Bremerton, Washington, dropped us off in Seattle Friday afternoon. Fortunately for us, Chris has hospitable friends in various towns in Washington. His friend Ted lives in Seattle, and offered to put us up for the night. Ted would be riding the STP (Seattle To Portland) with us. The ride was scheduled to begin the following morning.
Friday evening, Ted’s wife, Jen, cooked us a delicious enchilada dinner. Their two children chased Legos, fought over bean-bag chairs and watched strange hallucinatory children’s programs on TV. I gave a good-natured yet somewhat uncomfortable (neurotic!? I think not) lesson on how to properly boil an egg (a story I may share in full sometime). They live on a hill in the Ballard District. The whole west wall of their home is windows overlooking neighborhoods, an industrial area, and the hills beyond. The setting sun was an event that we sat quietly watching; all blues and salmon, fuchsia and gold.
Saturday morning we got off to a later start than the rest of the STP crowd. We had to ride five or so miles across town to get to the University District. As we rode into the huge parking lot where the ride was to commence we saw that it was mostly empty. It was only about seven-thirty in the morning, but we were the only riders there. There were a couple of box trucks that workers were finishing loading. Some of the workers made fun of us (“oh my god! Come on people!”), and told us to get going. We actually had to duck under the starting gate as some of the workers disassembled it. Had we been two minutes later we wouldn’t have had that invigorating feeling of officially starting the ride. We received some weak clapping and cheering from a couple of the workers as we took off. I think it’s safe to say that we were the very last three of ten thousand riders. Which means we could only move up from there.
The sun was shining and there were no clouds anywhere. It promised to be a clear day, and hot. With the nerviness of starting such a large ride, and because of our tardiness, we sped through Seattle like racers. It was a good way to warm up, but I knew we’d have to settle into a pace if we were going to last for the day. It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden through Seattle, and had forgotten what a beautiful city it is. Ted said that it’s not so fun during rush hour, and it’s harder to get from one side of town to another than in Portland. But with the clear morning air, and the mild early weekend traffic, it was a very pretty ride. We rode on winding tree-lined neighborhood roads and along Lake Washington for a while before leaving town.
As we got out of town and more into industrial territory the sun rose high, as did the temperature. We had a stiff tail wind and caught up with groups of riders to draft and pull. For the entire morning we were averaging between 23 – 25 mph, which felt like we were flying. By noon we had nearly covered as much ground as Chris and I had on any one day riding up. It was a great feeling to be moving so quickly along. It helped that we had been able to unload a bunch of our heavier gear – our tents and sleeping bags, cooking gear and some of our food – onto one of the trucks that would deliver it to our campsite. I was able to drop at least 20 – 25 pounds in this way.
First, let me say that I’m not used to riding with this many people. I can’t imagine that I saw a very large percentage of the ten-thousand riders, and throughout each day I felt like I was seeing some of the same people time and again. There were clusters of riders, some of whom were more confident on their bikes than others. A couple of times we had to stay wide of a particularly wobbly group. There were several crashes, which is to be expected on a ride with this many people. As the ride progressed I found myself more and more wanting to avoid the crowds to stay away from the stress involved.
I feel like the ride organizers did a good job of scattering the stops at regular intervals so people could eat and refill their bottles. Every time we stopped I was amazed at how many people there were, and how many bikes. The largest stops were for lunch, and I would guess that at any one time there were maybe a thousand or fifteen hundred riders gathered. Because of this the line for the portable bathrooms was always long. This might explain why I overheard someone say that one common complaint by the people who live in the small towns through which the ride passes was that STP riders kept crapping in their yards. I don’t know whether this is true or legend, but based on the length of the lines to the toilets, it seems plausible, even if incredibly rude.
Another irritation about this ride was the litter left in the streets. I saw quite a few lost water bottles and various energy-bar wrappers thrown to the side of the road. I’m sure the STP organizers have some sort of clean up crew that picks up the route at the end, although I didn’t find anything about this on their website. One of my least favorite moments during the ride was while we were cruising down a beautiful country road. A rider in front of us reached back into her jersey and pulled some sort of energy goo. She tore the packet open with her teeth and spat the tab out, which fell to the road. Tilting her head back she gulped the contents and then threw the empty packet off the side, into the ditch. Even if there were a cleanup crew scouring the course at the end, this is one they would probably miss.
Cycling is supposed to be an environmentally friendly activity, etc.; we all know the rhetoric. I don’t want to get preachy. I guess this shocked me because I just assumed that the act of riding a bike would bring the spirit of bike riding to the rider. In the spirit of riding a bike I assumed that one would almost automatically be aware of, and actually care for the environment. This rider obviously had no concept of taking responsibility for one’s own shit. Aren’t things messed up enough already that you don’t have to add your bit of confetti to the mix? Somebody should have pulled this rider to the side and given her a full-armed junior high paddling. Please be responsible for the trash you produce. Alright... enough said.
That night we stayed at Bethel church. The church was at mile 111, and with our extra miles across Seattle in the morning, and a couple of small detours, we rode a total of 118 miles. That afternoon in Centralia we stopped again at Taco del Rey for burritos. I probably ate five or six full meals throughout the day: pre-breakfast of toast and eggs; breakfast of bagels and bars; brunch of boiled eggs and bread; lunch of pb&j’s, chips, veggie wrap, grapes, banana, bars, etc.; pre-dinner fish burrito; and dinner at Bethel church was salad and a huge slab of veggie lasagna. My GPS has a reading for calories burned, although I have no idea how accurate it could possibly be. That day it said that I’d burned nearly 7000 calories. I think I went a long way toward replenishing.
The folks at Bethel church were very generous, basically opening their doors for us. There were showers and a large field of freshly mowed grass where we pitched our tents. The next morning, as seemed to be our style, Chris, Ted and I woke to find most everyone had already packed up an taken off. It was about 6:30, and we had three of the last five tents in the field. We packed up, ate some buffet-style scrambled eggs in the church, and headed out. It was another clear morning, and again promised to be a hot day.
We had about 90 miles to go to get to Portland. Much of this last day we rode the same route Chris and I had ridden up a few days before. We saw people succumbing to the heat, and to the pain caused by hours of having their asses on small, hard, wedge-shaped saddles. I was impressed by how well Ted was doing. He was on a single speed, and had had a crash only a few weeks before, breaking his clavicle. I think he’d only been able to ride a bike again for the past couple of weeks, and hadn’t gotten in many rides over 20 miles. But he was moving right along, tearing ahead on the climbs to keep his one-gear momentum up. Both Chris and I felt good and strong. I’d tweaked my back pretty bad that morning, which made it uncomfortable to walk, but fortunately I was just fine in the riding position.
My favorite memory from the whole ride was late in the afternoon of that last day. Chris and I had been drafting behind a very fast pair on a tandem. There was a whole string of riders trailing us. The tandem pulled us for a long time before stopping for a break. We continued on, passing everyone, tucking in behind faster groups of roadies, letting them pull us for a while, then tearing on ahead. We were running on adrenaline and the strength we’d been building up over the past week of riding. When we weren’t tucked in behind faster riders, Chris and I kept swapping places, me pulling him, him pulling me. Our pace increased gradually, and my legs were churning out the miles. I was breathing heavy and kept thinking that I didn’t want to keep going at this pace, that I couldn’t keep this pace if I wanted to finish the ride and not feel like complete jello. Then Chris and I would tear off the back of another group and pass them, our heavy steel bikes with racks and panniers pulling past the plastic and aluminum bikes of the spandex crowd. At one point we were passed by a solo rider. He was hauling. Chris and I dropped in behind him and he pulled for a few miles at about 28 – 30 mph. As he started to drop off he suggested that I take over. I knew I couldn’t keep that pace, but I took off and gave it everything I had.
One of the reasons I like to ride with Chris is that sometimes he uncorks a bottle of strength that borders on the absurd. He gave me a few minutes to feel useful up there in the front until his impatience popped. He tore out in front of me in a full-blown sprint, and even though I thought there was no fucking way I could keep up with him I pushed with everything I had, and was just barely able to hang on. I started laughing, a deep kind of hysterical laugh out of my tensed gut, which was probably the affect of the adrenaline surging through me. My muscles and lungs screamed. We were only able to keep this up for a few minutes before being spent, but it was so much fun, like the whole trip built up to this one raging moment.
As we went across the St. Johns bridge into Portland both Chris and I felt the sort of let-down of being on familiar roads. What had felt like a bike tour a few minutes before suddenly transformed into just another commute. Not that either of us dislike commuting, but the feeling is different. It’s perfunctory rather than exploratory. The word here is quotidian. The only difference was that we were strung out across town with ten thousand other riders.
At the finish people cheered, and we ate burritos. Ted’s mother was there, and shared some delicious raspberries. Chris and I said our goodbyes to Ted, gathered and repacked our gear and headed toward our respective homes. We decided we were pleasantly tired, but that if we weren’t back in Portland that we’d happily get up and ride a bunch more miles the next day. Work calls, though. Gotta build some bikes. We’ll be headed out again soon, I’m sure of it.