From out-of-shape to the STP
April 21, 2014 12:27 PM   Subscribe

So I've gotten it into my head that sometime in the next few years -- possibly as early as 2015 -- I want to participate in the Seattle-to-Portland bike ride. Though doing it in 1 day sound like a cool accomplishment, 2 days would be fine. Difficulty level: I have zero experience with distance riding, am in somewhat poor shape, have no idea what I'm doing, and, to the delight of shopkeepers everywhere, am a total sucker for trying to combat my ignorance with my wallet.

My background: I've been riding casually for years, though generally just toodling around for no more than 30 minutes at a time and rarely breaking a sweat. Right now I bike to my office every day... but it's only 1.5 miles each way, and I curse at the tiny-ass hill I have to climb every time. I know nothing about bikes, bike clothing, maintenance, riding etiquette, or how to fix my stupid kickstand so my bike won't fall down when breathed on. My current bike is a 5 year old Specialized Sirrus Hybrid. My helmet was the cheapest one on the shelf at the time of purchase.

Talk me through the process of becoming a competent distance biker, from (reasonable) purchases through riding regimen.
  • What kind of bikes do people ride for distance? (corollary: How much money am I about to drop on a bike?) Aluminum? Carbon? Potassium? (That would be a hell of a ride!) Disk brakes? Shifters? etc ad nauseum
  • How much time do I need to devote each week to riding? I've seen the recommended distance workouts on STP's site but have no concept of how much time people spend on their thrice-weekly rides.
  • I own no specific biking clothing. What's useful? Like, how many pairs of biking shorts should I have in my closet? (I live in Seattle, so: consistent drizzle.)
  • Are hills ever enjoyable?
  • What questions am I not asking that I should be?
Beyond this ride, I like the idea of bike touring, possibly even trying multi-day trips involving camping or motels. But all on roads -- mountain biking is not my thing.
posted by rouftop to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
- You can ride that hybrid, if you like. It's a fine bike, with a wide gear ratio. People who do a lot of this stuff sometimes invest in touring bikes or retro-style randonneur bikes , but that's a deeeeeep rabbit-hole you may not want to fall into. Your Sirrus is up to the job.

You may want to add a rack and a waterproof pannier to hold your camping supplies, change of clothing, tools and spares. You may want to switch to puncture-proof tires and quality inner-tubes. You will want lights up front and out back, especially in rainy weather, and a nice set of fenders will do wonders keeping you dry.

- An half-hour to an hour a day attacking that hill until it seems like nothing, and then find another, bigger hill to attack - and a nice long ride on the weekends.

- I wear regular shorts and a t-shirt, anything designed for use outdoors will do. Spandex not required. You should pack a lightweight and warm jacket for the drizzle, tho. (I have a bike cape and gaiters for wet weather when I was commuting daily.)

- Once you're used to a big hill of a certain grade and length, you won't really notice smaller hills.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:49 PM on April 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I went from approximately your description of shape (plus being significantly overweight) to STP one-day shape (and just "normally" overweight) in approximately one year. It's certainly possible. It requires motivation, and it requires a significant amount of time. However, as Cascade Bike Club is happy to tell you, STP simply requires being able to maintain a ~10 mph pace consistently for 20 hours. That sounds like a lot, but people do it every year.

What kind of bikes do people ride for distance?


How much money am I about to drop on a bike?

$700-$1000 will get you a perfectly adequate road bike that will well exceed your capabilities for a year or two. However, there are many people to do STP on hybrids, so I don't think you necessarily even need to consider switching bikes. I don't recommend new riders to buy used, as it requires a level of familiarity with riding styles, riding preferences, and bike maintenance that it sounds like you don't have.

Aluminum? Carbon?

If you do buy a new bike (which I am not suggesting you need to do) for a budget less than $1500, I suggest a road bike with aluminum frame with a carbon fiber fork. If you have a budget more than that, I suggest a full carbon fiber bike. However, I think you should hold off on making a decision until you have committed to your goal. I used a similarly priced heavy aluminum hybrid for about a year before buying a full carbon fiber bike.

Disk brakes? Shifters?

My opinion is that in Seattle, disc brakes are not useful for road bikes unless you want to ride in the winter/in the rain. If you do want to ride in those conditions, they are worth considering. Otherwise, they merely add weight (and are a bit of a pain to maintain). As for shifters, your primary choice for road bikes is between Shimano STI and SRAM DoubleTap. Try both; you'll likely hate one and love the other.

How much time do I need to devote each week to riding?

For a one-day STP, I am currently riding ~130 miles per week (~11 hours on the bike), which will ramp up to ~200 (~18 hours on the bike) in the next couple months. I have seen people train as little as not at all, which is not a good idea.

The recommended schedule on Cascade's website is... a bit aggressive for most people, and definitely aggressive for a two-day rider.

I own no specific biking clothing. What's useful?

Spandex is not required... but it definitely helps. I have two pairs of shorts and too many jerseys. If you are only riding in relatively nice weather, you can get by with a jersey, a pair of shorts, some arm warmers, cycling gloves, and optionally a pair of tights. Yes, you will look somewhat ridiculous. However, there's not much more annoying then having your non-cycling shorts rub you the wrong way when you are on your bike for >8 hours per day.

Are hills ever enjoyable?

Yes, and I am probably heavier than you are.

Final Thoughts: Don't overthink STP. People do the ride on cruiser bikes (even in one day), on skateboards, and on unicycles. There will be kids that do the ride by themselves, and there will be at least one person older than 70 that will pass you on the way down. Even with inadequate training, you can do it with sufficient persistence and pain tolerance. You don't need to go fast - most people don't, and it's more fun to be able to enjoy the scenery. You don't need the newest bike equipment - I even saw a police officer do the ride on a police bike with a police jersey on. You just need to do it. It's a great activity, it's a lot of fun, and it is the best-supported ride you'll ever find.
posted by saeculorum at 1:02 PM on April 21, 2014

You can totally do this!

Bikes: You will get a lot of different advice on bikes. The only advice that really matters is this: ride a bike you are comfortable on for long distances and that is in good working condition. This may be your current bike! You'll find out when you start doing longer rides. And if you want to make it more comfortable, figure out what parts are hurting you and adjust them: raise your saddle, get a new saddle, raise your handlebars, whatever. You may even want to consider getting a bike fit (usually $100-150 for a professional to take some measurements, watch you ride on a trainer, and help you adjust the bike to best work for you and not hurt you). But if you're looking for an excuse to get a new bike, just go down to a couple bike shops, tell them what you want to do, and start test-riding. You'll narrow it down pretty quickly.

Carbon frames and disc brakes will significantly increase the costs you're looking at. Carbon isn't really worth it unless you're racing--the amount of weight you save on the bike is weight that will be easier for you to lose off your person. Between steel and aluminium, it'll come down to what you're most comfortable riding on, because you can get steel bikes as light as aluminium bikes, and you're probably not going to be touring in remote places where it matters that a steel frame is easier to weld back together than an aluminum one in case of catastrophic breakage. Disc brakes are pretty awesome, especially in wet weather, but if you don't want to shell out for them, rim brakes are just fine.

To get you started, I'd recommend checking out light touring bikes, cyclocross bikes, and endurance road bikes. But really, a hybrid that fits you well can work just fine, too (I've been riding a similar hybrid in events like this for years). You can spend anywhere from $750-$2000 on very good, non-carbon bikes of the above types.

Clothes: Get a couple of whatever technical fabric shirts you find comfortable to ride in. These can be bike-specific jerseys, or just running/hiking shirts from REI. The main benefits are sweat-wicking and freedom of movement. Bike-specific jerseys will have convenient rear pockets for stashing stuff like snacks or sunscreen etc. Bike shorts can be very useful, too--the padding is nice on long rides, and they help keep you from chafing. You can get looser, mountain bike-style shorts (they look an awful lot like board shorts) if you're not crazy about the idea of wearing tight lycra.

Hills: I'm a heavy girl who will never be as strong or fast as most of the people I ride with, and I will never pass anyone going up a hill. Often hills really suck, and I spend most of my time going up them literally cursing under my breath. Sometimes I even walk for part of the climb. BUT getting to the top is pretty awesome, and zooming down is even more awesome, and by the time I'm at the bottom I've already forgotten how much it sucked. And the smaller hills become much less noticeable with time and experience. So for some value of "enjoyable" that equals "doesn't suck as bad as you think it does," yes? :)

Answers to questions you didn't ask: You should learn at least the most basic of bike maintenance and repair: lubing your chain and fixing a flat tire. Most bike shops have free classes on this, and there are plenty of great instructional YouTube videos. You should carry the tools needed for flat-fixing with you on the bike. Even though organized rides like this have support, it's still helpful to be able to do your own if they can't get to you quickly. No matter what anyone else tells you you don't need to use the pedals where you clip your shoe to the pedal (confoundingly called 'clipless pedals')--but you totally can if you want to. The only difference between cheap helmets and expensive helmets is how light and ventilated they are.

You're going to have so much fun!
posted by rhiannonstone at 1:07 PM on April 21, 2014

The thing that always catches me by surprise on distance riding is nutrition management. Presumably they'll have aid stations and stuff like that, but when I'm riding distance (for my definition, more than about 60 miles at a whack), if I forget to calorie up it bites me hard when I least expect it.

It isn't huge amounts, you can't take in huge amounts while you're riding, but about 200-250 calories an hour while riding, up to 800 while you're waiting, up to about what you think you're burning (there are plenty of "riding this speed, burning this many calories an hour" references on the web, and they all kind of agree which may just mean that they come from the same source). The theory is that if you're riding 20MPH you're probably burning about 1000 calories/hour, but you can't absorb it that quickly while exercising.

My usual thing is a Camelbak for water, water bottles with a sports drink or whatever for calories, but that's more water than most people like to carry. But that lets me get that regular influx of calories and does wonders for staving off the bonk.

And I kind of have a freak of nature body in terms of endurance, I can get back on the bike after 6 months off and knock out 75 miles averaging 16MPH no problem and do yard work in the afternoon, but the big thing: Get your butt accustomed to the seat. If I'm walking funny the day after a long bike ride, it's because my tender little buttocks haven't spent enough time in the saddle recently.
posted by straw at 1:13 PM on April 21, 2014

Presumably they'll have aid stations and stuff like that

As an STP-specific comment, there are a lot of rest stops on STP (averaging every 10-15 miles). However, the giant Cascade-sponsored ones (with free food) are ridiculously overcrowded. I suggest either paying for food at the smaller non-Cascade-sponsored rest stops or having someone play a support role and bring food to you.
posted by saeculorum at 1:17 PM on April 21, 2014

I'd advise that you check Ed Burke and Ed Pavelka's book The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling and some of the articles available at You might also find it helpful to glance over back issues of American Randonneur.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:25 PM on April 21, 2014

As for training: I worked up to my first 200K ride by doing a couple of short (30-45 minute) rides during the week, and a longer ride on the weekend: every week, 10 miles longer, up to 80 miles; then, 2 weeks later, a 100-mile ride. (I think I did 50 miles the intermediate week.) On the short rides, I worked in hills and did some high intensity intervals. On the longer rides, I sought out terrain comparable to what I was riding on. My goal was simply to complete the ride within the 13.5-hour time limit for a 200K randonnée, not to be particularly fast. You don't need to train a lot if all you want to do is finish. The most useful part of my training rides was figuring out what I needed to eat, and when.

Oh, one more thing: the reason to wear bike shorts with a chamois (artificial) isn't for the padding. In fact, too much padding is counterproductive. It's so that you don't have seams rubbing on sensitive skin. Ideally, shorts should be tight enough that the chamois doesn't move around; many of us like bib shorts for that reason.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:30 PM on April 21, 2014

You should invest in:

1. Clipless pedals and shoes: they much more efficient for overall pedaling and hill climbing is much easier.
2. Cycling jersey and shorts. Find a pair of shorts that you love and get two more. Jerseys are great because you can carry stuff in the back pockets, like bananas, your phone, a couple Clif bars.
3. Two bottle cages and two nice bottles. I'm fond of these. They keep your drinks chilled, which is awesome during the summer.

Sorry, but lose the kickstand. They are not super reliable (I can't tell you how many times my old Schwinn fell over if the wind was blowing enough or if it was on a slope), and they are unnecessary weight.

To get your body ready, as Eddy Merckx said, ride lots. Start with 5 to 10 milers and increase gradually till you're at 60-75 for a single day. There's really no reason to ride a century before the event. If you can find a riding buddy or a group, that will help enormously. Mix it up. Hills some days, flats other days. Just pick up any issue of Bicycling magazine, and they probably have a training schedule for a century.

Yes, hills will always hurt, but you will just go up them faster the more you ride them.

As pointed out above, eating and drinking during the ride is very important, and it is even more critical for a multiday event. Eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty. Learn what you can stomach while pedaling. Bananas are popular for a reason: portable, full of potassium and delicious (related: peanut butter and banana sandwiches are my go-to pick when I have to lug something around on my person).

Have fun!
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 1:42 PM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The bike is fine as long as it fits you well. To be comfortable for long distances mostly means getting your contact points right: handlebars, saddle, and pedals. It's worthwhile looking at bar ends or getting trekking bars so you can change between multiple hand positions to avoid fatigue. Try a Brooks B17 leather saddle, too- many distance riders swear by them, myself included. Since bike saddles are so personal, buy from REI or another store with liberal return policies.
posted by akgerber at 2:35 PM on April 21, 2014

Anecdata: The first time I did STP, I was called three days before the event by a friend who wanted me to do it with him (this was before the days of capped attendance sellouts). I had never done a ride longer than about 40 miles before, and I did the two-day STP. On a mountain bike. With knobby tires.

I wholeheartedly do not recommend this approach.

I told you that, though, to echo what others have said - if your goal is to ride STP in 2015, you can definitely get there from here with very little fuss. I won't address equipment issues, because others have done a good job with that, but I will say that a good way to build more miles up is to take a longer route home.

I used to live on Capitol Hill and work downtown, and very rarely was my ride home a straight shot up Pike. I'd leave downtown, head north over the University Bridge, jump on the BGT and head towards Sand Point, or sometimes go the other way and tool around Ballard a bit before heading home up Harvard/10th. The actual route isn't as important as making the commitment to spending a couple hours on your bike after work a couple times a week.

I'm not super-fit; I don't have what you would call a biker's physique (I have more of a beer enthusiast's physique) and I hate hills. But I do a century every summer, and I bike to work every day, and even when I'm not training for something, I take the long way home at least once a week.

As for hills, sadly, the only way to get better at them is to do them, and don't build them up in your head as The Worst Thing In The History Of Ever. Get up the hill, enjoy the corresponding downhill, and you'll be that much more ready for the next one.

Good luck!
posted by pdb at 2:53 PM on April 21, 2014

I agree with rhiannonstone to get your bike properly fit!
posted by vespabelle at 3:00 PM on April 21, 2014

Plenty of good advice in this thread.

I'd like to add that there are probably lots of shorter events in your area, typically with an entrance fee, benefitting charity. They'll offer distances of anywhere from 20 miles to 100 in varying increments. They'll almost always offer support - cars riding up and down the course to help with mechanical issues, stations to stop and get water/food, plus lots of other bikes on the road, which increases your visibility and safety.

You don't HAVE to do rides like those - riding by yourself or in a group of people on random weekends is totally fine. But these events provide training wheels that I personally found valuable when I was getting started. It's nice to have the first time you do your longest distance be supported, it reduces the trouble/worry. So like, do your first 40 miler as a charity ride, and then consider doing some by yourself or with a group. Then do your first 60 miler as a charity ride, rinse and repeat.

After a while, you won't need or want these charity rides, and you'll do them or not if you feel like it. I mostly don't do them now unless someone I know would like me to come along, because I'm very comfortable riding on my own.

I would also be shocked if there are not cycling clubs in your area, and/or bike shops with regular organized rides. Practically every shop I know has rides leaving from it weekend mornings. They'll usually advertise or list them somewhere, including the distance, maps, expected average speeds and so forth. These group rides are IDEAL for getting your weekly mileage in because you'll have people to help you, encourage you, and lead you. I still love going on rides like these because I don't have to worry about routes and maps, I just have to get on my bike and ride.

From these rides you can also learn the roads people typically ride on, the gear people tend to use, and you'll be able to gauge from other people the level of fitness that is attainable. You may have to "move up" over time, since each individual ride usually provides a specific distance and speed, and you'll want to start going on faster and/or longer rides.

Finally, try to remember that nearly any distance on a bike is possible if you go slow enough, eat enough, and drink enough. But, the more fit you are, the faster you can do it, and the happier you'll be at the end of it.
posted by RustyBrooks at 6:22 PM on April 21, 2014

Hey! My husband did basically exactly this eight years ago. Here's his advice.

Equipment: This can be a religious discussion in some quarters. It really doesn't matter so long as you have a bike in good condition with brakes, and enough gears to go up and down hills without grinding or spinning too much (all of which is pretty subjective). Probably avoid narrow tires for racing. STP is not a race and you are not in the Tour de France. Safety, convenience, and speed are all more important factors. Invest in quality tires and a reliable system of repairing flats, which will happen if you ride regularly. If you ever ride in the rain (i.e. live in Seattle and are not exclusively a sunny-day cyclist), you want fenders/mudflaps on your bike, and except for an STP with no rain forecast where it's worth it to take them off, just keep the damn things on all year. If you plan to ride at night you'll need good lights. If you're touring, see if you can get a frame with built in places to tie panniers and so on. I haven't done touring so I couldn't say exactly what the best setup is, but at the very least you'll want a couple of water resistant panniers.

Bike clothes: Bike shorts are nice padding for long rides. City cyclists often forego them without regrets. Buy one pair and see what your preference is. Buy more later if you feel you need them. Rain gear is the main thing. Get a water resistant cap for your helmet, a thick high-visibility rain jacket that won't get instantly soaked and stuck to your body (Novara makes a nice one), water-resistant gloves, and those rain-resistant booties that slip over your shoes. On some days you will get wet anyway. Your shirt should wick moisture away from your body (as will your shorts). Between the rain gear and the base layer you can add whatever insulation you need depending on season and conditions. In summer in Seattle, bike shorts and a light t-shirt works most days. If you live in the city and have a short ride, you may be better off using normal street clothes. Until there are Amsterdam-style cycle facilities, I'll gladly look like a dork for safety and comfort.

Training: I used the recommended training regimen for 2 days, plus my 25 mile/day commute, and did 2/3 of the distance in one day and the rest the second day, and could probably have pushed it to doing it in one day. Just following that schedule of rides without counting your commute should get you in the ballpark. I did Flying Wheels in 2006 as a preliminary and it was helpful--I ended up doing the whole 100 miles (recommended for single-day riders of STP) and wasn't particularly tired at the end (after only about a year of regular cycling).


Hope that helps!
posted by KathrynT at 11:53 PM on April 21, 2014

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