Rites of Passage: Remembering STP 1983

Thirty-five years ago, in the winter/spring of 1983, I was 39 years old, and at a crossroads in my life.  A rocky marriage had finally crumbled into dust, and I was 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, a well-used 1979 Fuji Gran Tourer  12-speed I had bought new after my also well-used toy-store C. Itoh 10-speed had been stolen from outside the bar in Newport, Rhode Island, where the crew gathered after work, and where I had spent too much time.

In 1983, I was working in Poulsbo, Washington.  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. Having been a bicycle commuter since 1976, I had begun to consider the possibility that one could actually ride farther than the 8-10 miles per day I spent cycling back and forth between home, work, and the customer site.  The idea of a 200-mile ride was intriguing, to say the least, but, at that point, only a curiosity.

But, now, having boosted my commute from 4 miles one way to 17 miles one way after transferring to Washington State and having lived nearly a year in ’79-’80 without a car, 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 (i.e., 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.

After a few more 125-km rides on weekends, I thought I was ready.  The day before the event, went home with my boss, Bud Williams, 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, at a speed I knew I couldn’t sustain for long, running at 35 km/hr.  Before long, the group broke up, and I settled into the 28 km/hr that was my sustained commuting cruise speed, cranking up the hill between Puyallup and the aptly named 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.  I stopped at a local diner and ordered a meal, cutting into my overall speed considerably.

Out on the prairie, the flow of riders continued, punctuated by vans supporting organized teams of riders, scantily clad women tossing water bottles and musettes to the riders as they passed.  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 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 shoulder littered with chunks of bark and other debris from the logging industry.

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, miles from the nearest town.  Seized again by cramps a few miles later, I spent some time at a convenient gas station rest room, then continued down the road, only to turn back a mile or two later for a return engagement.  Remember 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, us 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.  The winning time that year was 9 hours, 30 minutes, by a female tandem team, both U.S. women’s racing champions, who had passed me near Bucoda, surrounded by a squadron of domestiques.

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 and Saturday, 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, I rode my bike to Coleman dock, boarded the ferry to Bainbridge Island, and rode home to my borrowed camper near Kingston.

I didn’t ride my bike the first few days that week, but, on Friday, I realized it was a holiday weekend: I loaded my camping gear on the bike, and headed for Port Angeles 120 km away, took the ferry to Victoria, BC, Canada, riding 25 km west to Goldstream Provincial Park.  The next morning, I rode back through Victoria and up the coast to Sydney, took the ferry to Anacortes, Washington, and camped that night at Deception Pass State Park.  I rode home to Kingston via Port Townsend on Sunday, adding another 200 miles to the total for the two weekends.

I had become a bicycle tourist, by accident more than intent.  I made at least one more weekend excursion that summer, but extended business trips to California and a new job assignment back to Rhode Island delayed pursuing this new adventure until 1986, when Judy and I got our first tandem, for our first anniversary, and started touring together.  We also rode the STP, in 1987, but took the two-day option, staying overnight in Chehalis, and riding in sometimes heavy rain the next day into Portland, where the end point had moved to Lloyd Center, to accommodate the 10,000 riders to which the ever-popular ride is now limited, and for which the organizers provide excellent support stations along the way.  The two-day riders aren’t timed, but our personal log said we spent 20 hours total on the road, about the same average speed we still ride, 31 years later, but for shorter distances.