Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Three Strong Legs, Two Good Eyes, One Long Ride - STP 2008


Here is an article I have written for various outlets about our STP experience....

333km is a long way to ride a bike. Factor in 97 degree heat, 9,500 other riders, a blind man and an amputee, and you've got yourself a long day. "Riding a tandem 300 km is like riding a single bike 400 km" Brian informed me AFTER we crossed the STP finish line on Saturday evening. My neck, back, legs, hands and 'undercarriage' all confirmed that he spoke the truth.

STP - The Group Health Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic - is marketed as a "group bike ride", which is akin to describing Antarctica as a "cold island". The event is enormous, both in terms of riders and distance for recreational cyclists to cover in two days (let alone one day as was our plan.) The epic nature of the ride was the initial attraction for me - the plan was that training for, and accomplishing, this type of goal would bring about a noticeable improvement in my cycling. It was an evening in June, about one month before the ride, that the idea to tackle STP with Brian popped into my head.

Brian Cowie is a visually impaired paralympic cyclist preparing for Beijing this summer. I met him through my ski coach. He has also completed 10 Ironman races including Hawaii (twice). Most recently we raced together, representing Canada at the Triathlon World Championships in the AWAD (Athletes with a Disability) category. Visually impaired triathletes compete with a guide who swims, 'pilots' the bike, and runs with the athlete. As a Paralympian, Brian normally has his pick of high calibre 'pilots' when he races, pro cyclists, ex-national champions etc. The thought of an amputee (me) and a blind cyclist teaming up to conquer the STP challenge was way too cool for me to ignore. To his credit Brian agreed instantly - a decision which I now realize meant putting his life in my hands!

Our first (and only) training ride on Brian's custom red and white, maple leaf covered, rocket ship confirmed that we would be road worthy, but wasn't enough to give either of us 100% confidence. The bike performs a lot like a souped-up, fully loaded dump truck might - it goes really fast (especially downhill) and is hard to manoeuvre or stop. At the conclusion of the training ride Brian's assessment was, "At least I know you're not going to kill us" which I took as a compliment. Busy schedules dictated that the rest of our training had to take place independently. By the time I saw the tandem again in Seattle I had butterflies about riding it.... not where you want to be at the beginning of the odyssey that is STP.

As its name would suggest, STP begins in Seattle. The most beautiful part of the ride (in my opinion) is first couple of hours as you wind along Lake Washington and make your way out of Seattle on fresh legs and with an unchafed derriere. This is also the most crowded part of the ride and thus it is wise to be on the lookout for erratic riders unused to pelotons. Before too long the roads straighten out and the speed picks up, the riders spread out and the drafting begins. With the speed generated by two riders our tandem provides an extremely attractive and accommodating draft - Brian and I became the pied pipers of Seattle as we lead hundreds of cyclists out of the city in a long pace line. My confidence handling the machine was back and better than ever.... We were both feeling good.

You can't ride 333km with out some hair-raising moments - ours came when we double flatted on rough pavement with 150 riders right behind us. With considerable difficulty I managed to keep the rig upright as I struggled to stop... nearly disastrous. Our fate was met with cries of "Bummer!", "Thanks Guys!", and "That sucks!" from our disappointed (but not stopping to help) draftees. That wasn't the only adversity we faced though... the heat was remarkable and whoever was in charge of making sure there was no shade in the rest areas had done a spectacular job. The miles ticked by and we got closer to Portland.

The winding road brought with it all sorts of ups and downs, both in energy and elevation. We enjoyed chatting at times and rode silently at times. Brian didn't get mad when I asked him 138 times "Did you see that?" or "Look at that" he just politely reminded me that's why I got to ride up front....

Oregonian drivers are an interesting bunch. Many have a fondness for their horns and a seething hate on for cyclists. It seemed at odds with the state's reputation as an outdoorsman's mecca. To the drivers that leaned on their horns when passing cyclists at 100 mph I offer this ancient Chinese proverb: Man who drive like hell, bound to get there. It is a few words longer, and a wee bit more socially acceptable than the phrase we used several times on Saturday. But I digress...

The ride, predictably, ended in Portland around 6pm. We had been on the road for 9 hours of riding and about 4-and-a-half of eating, resting and changing tires. The feeling was one of accomplishment - the character-building kind that comes from completing something difficult - the kind of feeling triathletes and endurance junkies love. We celebrated by ravenously putting back two pieces of pizza and two cans of coke each within seconds of crossing the line (like all elite athletes do...) Team Momentum (as we had dubbed ourselves) was completely spent. The Momentum Foundation was started earlier this year, Brian and I are directors. The Foundation's purpose is to provide opportunities and funding to allow disabled individuals to reach their active living and sporting goals. We hope that the Momentum Foundation will be paving the way for physically disabled men and women of all ages to follow in our footsteps - not just at STP but wherever their sporting dreams can take them.

The logistics surrounding a point-to-point ride like this are a bit complicated, Brian and I were extremely fortunate to link up with a group from Innovative Fitness. Not only did I.F. sponsor us to help with the costs, but the experienced coaches provided us with a great deal of knowledge gleaned from guiding dozens of customers through the STP experience year-after-year. If you want to tackle this ride in style, I recommend Innovative's STP and coaching packages - our experience was excellent. From the hotels and transportation to the company of like-minded people - we had a blast! Also, a big "Thank you!" to Atac Sportswear for providing Brian and I with custom Momentum Foundation powered by Innovative Fitness jerseys.

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Ri said...

Wow. Amazing ride, guys. Will you and Brian have the opportunity to ride together for other events?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story. Reading it made my day!

MJ said...

We might.... Maybe a triathlon one day. Or maybe something like this again. The hardcore cycling races Brian does would take A LOT more practice.