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In Photos: Seattle to Portland by Bicycle

PREFACE: Like my previous post, this is less a story than it is a journal entry recounting a great moment in my life.

WE BEGIN: In 2011, my father asked if I would join him on his annual participation in the Group Health Seattle to Portland Bike Ride, also known as the STP. What I didn’t know was that my answer would essentially change my life.

Two years later and I have completed my third STP. Biking has become an integral part of my life, logging roughly 1,000 miles on my bike each year. It is my “commuter car” and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Each year it begins the same: a photo of my bicycle resting the evening before the trip, posted on Facebook with the famed Twin Peaks line (as delivered by the mysterious giant): “It is happening again.”

The night before, I joined my parents and my friend and Green Light Go Publicist Janelle Rogers in my parents’ room for a celebratory pre-ride bottle of wine. We used styrofoam cups.

With my parents, it is always an ordeal to get on the road. It is always a hurry up and wait scenario. Everything has to take place now in my father’s eyes, but then we get held up by things he did not finish.

We got a very late start, leaving the hotel roughly 30 minutes later than hoped and the starting line a good hour-plus later than planned. They called 5-minutes ’til starting line closure as we rode through. The time was 7:25am.

We cruised through the first stop at REI’s headquarters. Things were wrapping up; the crowds had dissipated, food was essentially gone. What was left were plain tortillas, plain bagels and oranges. We left quickly, concerned lunch might find us with an equal lack of food options.

The second stop is a mini-break in Puyallup/Sumner before what everyone dubs “The Hill” — a somewhat brutal mile-plus incline that never seems to end. Shortly after the hill is the lunch spot. We were pleased to find plenty of sandwiches remained.

After lunch, we ride alongside Fort Lewis, a road that is typically a bit terrifying. For one, it’s narrow. Cars drive fast along it, and the heavy quantity of bicycles make for bunch-ups behind slow riders, and closer-than-normal passing by fast cyclists. Last year we witnessed the aftermath of a few bike-on-bike accidents along this road, one of which resulted in hospital treatment.

This year, the road was easy. Given our late start, bike traffic was light.

At the end of this road, we hop on a bicycle trail for 14 miles. In the past, this has been an arduous ride, but this year it seemed to go quickly. The heat was still blaring, but I had trained a significantly greater amount this year in comparison to last.

Perhaps the best part of the STP is the overnight stay in Centralia. Each year we stay with a wonderful couple who hosts a get-together with plenty of beer and wine, an amazing BBQ, and actual beds for riders to sleep in (most riders camp).

Contrary to previous years, our very generous hosts expanded the party and invited neighbors, family and other friends. Met some great people that night, had a little too much beer and wine, and woke up the next morning with a light hangover.

Our hosts, of course, have the perfect cure: an amazing breakfast with homemade cinnamon rolls and oatmeal, all the coffee we can drink, and fruit and muffins and more.

Like much of this year’s STP, the second day was very untraditional. We three rode separately for the most part, my father going ahead early on while Janelle and I took a longer break. I rode with my father up to the Banana Bread stop, but he left us behind at Winlock, home of the World’s Largest Egg.

By the time I arrived in Vader, dad had a 30-minute-plus lead. Following Vader is a school stop, then Day 2 lunch. I left Janelle behind a few times and met up with her again at the stop-points. We also met up with a few of our fellow overnight stay guests along the way.

Perhaps one of the most notable paths during the STP is the crossing of the Columbia River in Kelso. Traffic is split: a large group of cars crosses, followed by a large group of bikes, and so on.

Last year at the peak, I lost my chain. It jammed and I cut my fingers an knuckles yanking it loose. This year, with a new bike under me, I was determined not to have the same fate.

The bridge arches tremendously, and at the peak you can see miles in every direction. Of course, in a crowd of bicycles, you don’t look. Especially at the peak. You focus on what’s ahead — the decline.

It’s known as a water bottle graveyard. You can achieve great speeds on the way down — thirties, forties, if not higher. It’s the dividing sections of the roadway, subtle bumps in a car, but back-jolting impacts by bike. It’s always a bit terrifying, but a thrill nonetheless.

From there, it’s on to the final large stop of the day in St. Helens, about 30 miles outside Portland. Arriving here is always a welcome sight. They have plenty of water and crude PVC-pipe misters. The more daring bikers walk through the arches, while most stand eight to ten feet away and let the mist roll over them.

It’s a welcome feeling after a sixty to seventy mile ride. It’s even more welcome as by the time you arrive, the temperature is in the 80s.

However, one of the best stops on Day 2 is the Dairy Queen in Scappoose. By 3:30pm, we’ve been riding in 70 to 80+ degree heat for hours, and all we can think about is something nice, cold, and refreshing: ice cream.

It’s a popular destination.

In St. Helens, I caught up with my dad. We rode together to Dairy Queen where we each had a treat. With the sugar rush that followed, I left him far behind. Had I clocked it, my average speed is likely to have topped 20mph the last 20 or so miles.

People always talk about the Puyallup hill as being one of the most hellish parts of the trip. I quite disagree. I think it’s the hill up to the bridge in Portland, given it comes up so unexpectedly. We always forget about this hill, and it’s a bit of a monster.

At the top is quite the sight.

The bridge is so iconic — We have arrived in Portland!

What follows is another easily-forgotten path: the winding streets through the city to the finish line. It’s a good seven or eight miles, and it always seems so much longer as in the city there are endless stoplights and crowds of bicyclists.

Then it’s done.

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Digital & Social

5 Must-Have Apps for the Seattle to Portland (STP) Bike Ride (or Any Other Bike Tour)

These days there are apps for everything, so I sat down and compiled a brief list of five must-have apps for the upcoming Seattle to Portland (STP) Bike Ride.

This is not a new area; others have compiled bike app lists, including this The App Whisperer article that led me to choose my #1 app on this list.

There’s also this Travelling Two article which goes beyond mere bike-only apps.

I followed the path of Travelling Two, but looked to compile five very different apps that would be useful during any bike tour. My requirements: each would need to serve a notably different function and aid your tour in some fashion. Here’s the list:

1. Cyclemeter GPS Cycling & Running App

Read my original take on the Cyclemeter GPS Cycling App, and you’ll get the impression that I was a fan from the start. It’s true: I have used the app to track my location, elevation climbs, ride time and average speed since the day I purchased it, and I’ve found it very well worth the cost of a few dollars.

Cyclemeter GPS App Screenshot

My only complaint is likely the standard one: like most apps, continuous use over a long period of time will drain your battery. So, if you are able to charge while you ride either via a bike-powered phone charger (still looking for one that gets solid ratings) or a solar-powered phone charger (again, still on the hunt).

If you prefer, you could also get Map My Ride, which has received good ratings.

2. Bike Repair

While the hope is you’ll never need it, having access to a bike repair or troubleshooting app can come in handy when out on the open road. This app gives you good step-by-step instructions on how to complete various small repairs and also has a decent troubleshooting section.

In addition to my Bike Repair app, I have a small set of standard and compact bike tools housed just under my seat as a just-in-case.

Bike Repair App

I have found the photo guides most useful and have used it to research removing pedals from my old 70s Schwinn Varsity.

Bike Doctor is another app in this category.

3. Red Cross First Aid

Again, the hope here is that you won’t need this app. However, there were a few times we passed cyclists who had crashed. Being that my father is both elderly and a diabetic, it’ll be useful to reference if he gets low/high on blood sugar during the ride. If an emergency should arise, this app could come in handy.

Red Cross First Aid iPhone App

Now, during the STP it is unlikely you’ll need this app even should there be an emergency or problem as this ride is quite well supported. However, if you are on a solo or very small group tour, it’s recommended to have a general first aid app.

4. Instagram

I love Instagram. It takes you standard, often dull camera phone photos and brings them to life.

Instagram iPhone App

With Instagram, you can share your photos with your friends by connecting your account to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. A strong recommend for any trip and one I’ll be using frequently during the STP.

5. Yelp

Why use Yelp on the trip? During those overnight stays, Yelp is perfect for finding that hot local spot for a quick bite to eat, a beer after riding 100 miles, or even a hotel for the night (though for that I’d lean toward TripAdvisor or Orbitz).

Yelp iPhone App

On a recent vacation, I used Yelp frequently to seek out restaurants with gluten-free options. You can read what others say in the reviews section. Its connection with Maps allows you to get easy directions to the dining establishment, and you can add in your own two-cents about your experience when you’re done.