The Endurance Cyclist*
By the winter/spring of 1983, I was 39 years old, and at a crossroads in my life. The rocky marriage had finally crumbled into dust, and I was once again car-less and homeless, living in a camper in a co-worker’s back yard. At least I still had my job, which my boss had pulled out of the fire by sending me to a counselor. And, I had my bicycle.
The 4th running of the Seattle-To-Portland Bicycle Classic (STP) was coming up in June. I had heard of the first event, in 1979, not long after getting the Fuji, my first quality bicycle, and had begun to consider the possibility that one could actually ride farther than the 12-20 kilometers per day I spent then, cycling back and forth between home, work, and the customer site. The idea of a 200-mile (325 km) ride was intriguing, to say the least, but, at that point, only a curiosity.
But, now, having boosted my commute from 6.5 km one way to 28 km one way after transferring to Washington State and having lived nearly a year in ’79-’80 without a car at all, long-distance cycling progressed from a curious anomaly to an achievable goal. The bicycling season in the mild climate of Puget Sound begins with the Chilly Hilly, a 50-km tour of Bainbridge Island, and I signed up for the 1983 edition. The Chilly Hilly is also opening day for registration for the STP, and I got an application.
The STP application form stated that the event was “a grueling test of endurance for those who have properly prepared themselves.” So, I bought a $300 car (about the same as I had paid for my bicycle), started training after work instead of commuting to and from work, had my steel rims replaced with aluminum alloy, and settled into a progressive endurance training regimen. On Mother’s Day, 1983, I rode my first century (100 miles/ 160 km), a ride which included three ferries: Port Townsend-Keystone, Clinton-Mukilteo, and Edmonds-Kingston, breaking the ride into three roughly 53-km rides, but all on the same day.
After a few more 125-km rides on weekends, I thought I was ready. The day before the event, I went home with my boss, who lived on the Edmonds side of the ferry run. We got up at 3:00 am, and he drove me downtown Seattle, where the one-day ride started at City Hall, with nearly 800 riders registered. The two-day riders had left the day before. At 4:00 am, the first group of us pushed off, headed south up the Green River Valley.
It was a shock to ride with so many other cyclists. A peloton of 100 or more riders formed for the run up the valley, three abreast, running at 35 km/hr, a speed I knew I couldn’t sustain for long. After a few highway crossings, the group broke up, and I settled into the 28 km/hr pace that was my sustained commuting cruise speed, cranking up the hill between Puyallup and the aptly named town of Summit with relative ease, at a comfortable pace.
By the time I reached the town of Yelm, in Thurston County, I realized my food plan was inadequate for the long ride. In my commuting and even long training rides, I had not worked out a nutrition and hydration plan. For this ride, I had brought a supply of granola, traditional backpacking fare, and a bag of Gatorade powder, as I had read that electrolyte replacement was necessary for endurance cycling, but hadn’t tried it before. The granola was too dry and a choking hazard to eat while riding. I stopped at a local diner and ordered a meal, cutting into my overall time considerably.
Out on the prairie, the flow of riders continued, punctuated by vans supporting organized teams of riders, scantily clad women tossing bidons and musettes to the riders as they passed. Transcontinental cyclists Cheryl Marek and Estelle Gray whooshed by in pink kits on their tandem, with a claque of domestiques in pursuit, and soon disappeared in the distance. They had started in daylight and finished in 9 hours 38 minutes, setting a new record for the four-year-old classic double century, with an average speed of 34 km/hr. The next year, they would set a cross-country women’s tandem record—5000 km (3000 miles) coast to coast in less than 11 days, just 3 hours short of the existing tandem record set by married couple and professional racers Lon Haldeman and Susan Notarangelo in ’82.
In those early days of the STP, little thought was given to event-provided support along the way. After several hours of riding, nature calls were a problem, but the more organized teams solved it in the classic Tour d’ France method: groups of riders pulled off the road, faced the pastures, and let fly.
After passing through Centralia and crossing I-5, the route climbed into a rolling plateau, through the tiny towns of Winlock and Vader, before paralleling the freeway. I stopped again near Castle Rock for yet another meal at a roadside diner. I removed a clothing layer, setting my shirt temporarily on the rear rack, remembering too late, miles down the road: by that time, the shirt was gone. By now, the ride was well past my previous training distance, and I was in new territory, physiologically. Soon, Longview and the Columbia River came into view, with an exciting climb over the high bridge, the narrow shoulder littered with chunks of bark and other debris from the logging industry, which dropped off huge trucks rushing by an arm’s-length away.
Once on the Oregon side, the effects of eating large meals, drinking too much Gatorade, and hours of strenuous exercise took their toll: a sudden bout of intestinal cramps sent me off the highway up into the woods, kilometers from the nearest town. Seized again by cramps a bit farther on, I spent some time at a convenient gas station rest room, then continued down the road, only to turn back a kilometer or two later for a return engagement. This was early in the start of the extreme sports craze, and most of us were clueless to the effects on the human body and how to properly fuel and hydrate for such an event.
Meanwhile, we slowest of one-day riders began overtaking the slowest of two-day riders as we approached the city, so navigation into Portland was a matter of following the line of bicycles to the Portland City Hall, where we checked in. My time: 14 hours, 50 minutes, 570th place among the 750 one-day finishers, for an average overall speed of 22 km/hr, having spent more than two hours off the bike during the run. My moving speed remained at a steady 28 km/hr, which would have meant a time closer to average, had I been better prepared with a food and hydration plan.
The registration forms had offered shared hotel rooms, intended for people traveling together, but most of us, simply looking for a bargain, checked the box, and got—to the consternation of the front desk—paired up with complete strangers for our overnight accommodation. While waiting for my assigned roommate to finish showering, I stretched out on the bed. And, awoke at dawn, very hungry, and still in my shorts and jersey.
In the early days of the event, the ride started on Friday for two-day riders and Saturday for one-day riders, with a big brunch buffet and awards ceremony on Sunday morning. Needless to say, I filled my plate several times. At 39, I thought I was old, but the ceremony honored the oldest finisher, at 72. My lack of support (I was carrying a change of clothes, food, water, and electrolyte powder in panniers) and my ill-advised restaurant stops had put me far down in the ranking, though it technically wasn’t a race. But, I had finished a double century! 202 miles, 325 km, all in one very long day.
Later that day, those of us who didn’t have friends and family supporting us along the way loaded our bikes into a baggage car and boarded the train at Union Station for the trip back to Seattle. On arrival at Union Station, I rode my bike to Coleman dock, boarded the ferry to Bainbridge Island, and rode home to my borrowed camper near Kingston.
*Updated 16 February 2019, to conform to revised version as one chapter of a larger narrative on my life behind [handle]bars.