Jerry Baker has ridden every Seattle to Portland cycling event. With his advice and a little hard work, you can start your own streak.
BY SIX on a July morning the sun is up and bouncing off the shiny helmets belonging to more than 500 cyclists in brightly colored racing tops and wraparound sunglasses. They sit atop gleaming road bikes, ready to tackle the 2007 Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic. The start time is one of the most popular with the 9,000 registered riders, and the cyclists shimmy and fidget as they wait for the signal to begin. The staccato clicking of riders clipping into their pedals rises above the blaring music and cheering fans as the starting rope drops. Minutes later, the sharp scraping of bike on bike is followed by murmurs and then shouts of “Crash!” as cyclists flow around a scrum of downed riders like river water detouring a boulder.
As riders spill over each other back in Seattle, Jerry Baker, age 66, is already skirting Tacoma at breakneck speed. Baker, who’s retired from his bike-clothing manufacturing business and an engineering career at Boeing, has ridden every STP, 28 in all. He won the first event in 1979 (the only time it was officially a race), riding the 202.25 miles from city hall to city hall in 10 hours, 26 minutes, and 53 seconds. Baker knows better than to start with the crowds. “Beginning is the most dangerous part,” he says, “because of how antsy people get.”
The annual ride, held every July, has grown into the largest multiday bike event in the Northwest and attracts cyclists from around the country. It’s a rite of passage for Northwest road cyclists, but many of the eager participants haven’t trained properly for the big day, let alone ridden in packs before.
Baker prepares zealously for long rides. He coordinates training and race events at the Marymoor Velodrome, bikes almost every day, averages 19 mph while doing it, and tracks his lifetime mileage. So far, he’s logged 185,000. Averaging 5,000 miles a year, Baker says he plans on “going to the moon” eventually, which everyone knows is a short 240,000 miles from the Burke-Gilman Trail.
"Another year, another ride," Baker says of his 28th-straight STP finish. "Next one, same as always. It’ll be easy."
For riders who want to successfully spin their way to Portland this summer, now’s the time to begin training for the July 12 start. But first, says Baker, your bike must fit your every contour. This requires diligently visiting a specialist at a bike shop (most good bike stores will have one) over the course of a couple of weeks and trying out different adjustments to the frame, seat, and handlebar positions. You’ll also want to try a variety of seats—experiment with width, shape, and firmness—until you find your comfort zone. When your bike is molded to your body, everything is easier. Those once-painfully long rides suddenly don’t produce knotted shoulders, tingling fingers, or numb backsides anymore. More than anything, though, says Baker, proper training means saddle time, which can be a real pain in the glute if you don’t follow step one properly. Withstanding long hours on your bike demands mental effort and planning as much as actual pedaling—you’ll likely find that your body adapts quicker than your mind.
“Start with relatively low miles just to get used to riding, but after a couple weeks ramp up to 100 or 150 miles a week,” he advises. “Most people can ride two times during the week, and take a longer weekend ride. Start with two 15-mile rides and one 20, and by early June get up to two 35-milers and one 70.” To test your endurance for two full days of pedaling, work in one or two 100-mile efforts, but don’t waver from a regular routine. “The most important thing is consistency.”
Those long training miles can be daunting, which is why Baker suggests finding a partner or group to train with. “I like riding in a group because it’s more social, you tend to ride more often, and it gives you group-riding skills, which you’ll need for the event.” The STP support staff is eager to help aspiring participants. Cascade Bicycle Club, which produces the event, organizes free rides and takes groups out a couple times a week during peak training months, usually starting in March. CBC also collaborates with Cycle University, a training center with a staff of professional coaches, to offer one-on-one coaching, bike-fitting, and team training.
The sponsor’s support doesn’t waver during the race. Riders can get help with a flat tire or find a sag-wagon ride anywhere along the way, and, every 50 miles or so, full-service comfort stops along the route offer energy foods like bagels, bananas, and Clif bars. Race-day nourishment is critical, says Baker, who advises riders to experiment with on-the-go fuel. “You burn through a lot of calories, and you need to learn what you can digest and still ride. I eat pretty much normal food—baked potatoes are good—but everybody’s body is different.”
Last year, Baker rolled across the Holladay Park finish line on Saturday at 7:30pm, some 14 hours and 203 miles from Seattle, only three hours off his winning time almost three decades ago. “Another year, another ride,” he says of number 28. “Next one, same as always. It’ll be easy.”