Editor’s Note: American Kiel Reijnen has been a professional since 2008, but 2016 is his first season racing for a WorldTour team, Trek-Segafredo. He is a two-time winner of the Philadelphia Cycling Classic, and a stage winner in both the USA Pro Challenge and the Tour of Utah.
At 4:30 a.m., my phone alarm (Modest Mouse’s “The Cold Part”) jolted us awake. Could it really be time already? I felt like I had barely fallen asleep. I pried dad out of bed and set about kitting up and stuffing my pockets with energy bars, spare tubes, and miscellaneous survival gear.
Five minutes later, we were out the door, down the stairs and through the hotel lobby. Outside, Seattle’s 4th street was nearly pitch black, except for the dim street light by the corner. I opened the door, bracing myself for the bitter Northwest morning air. Instead, a warm, salty breeze filled our nostrils and greeted us with all the familiar scents of the Pike Place market.
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“Lucky it’s a southerly,” my Dad pointed out. “Could have been a cold morning otherwise.”
We flicked on our bike lights, took one last deep breath and clipped in. We raced like kids through the city streets — no cars, bikes, buses, or pedestrians to slow us down. At that time of the morning, we had the city to ourselves. If my dad was nervous for the 200-mile Seattle to Portland (STP) ride he didn’t show it, speeding ahead on the Lake Union bridge.
At 5:30 a.m., now with my cousin Mike in tow, we arrived at the University of Washington. As we neared the start line, cyclists began appearing from every side street and alley; 10,000 of us descended on the university. I use the term cyclist loosely. Not all were spandex-clad weekend warriors. The eclectic bunch of STP-ers included couples on tandems, middle-aged folks on hybrid bikes, seniors on laidback recumbents, 20-somethings in jeans aboard oversized, hand-me-down, steel road bikes, and even two skateboarders!
We nervously pinned our numbers and adorned our bars with number plates as instructed. Last, but not least, came the number sticker supposedly designed for a helmet. I took one look at the sticker and then at my ultra-light and well-ventilated race helmet. If this sticker was meant to go on a helmet it definitely wasn’t designed to go on one made in this decade, so I stuck it in my pocket instead.
The P.A. system crackled to life and a heavily caffeinated announcer called the second wave of one-day starters to the line.
“That’s us,” I said. “Last chance to bail, boys.” There were no takers, and just like that we headed off on our 205.7-mile journey.
I had pored over the route, weather, and course profile, carefully crafting a time table that, if followed precisely, would land us in Portland at 8 p.m., just in time for a well-deserved victory beer and food truck dinner. Of course, how often do adventures really go to plan?
After a smooth start, things began to unravel, 57 miles in. Mike became less conversational as we began a slow, steady climb. My dad was in real trouble. Our pace was plummeting, and although he didn’t look exhausted, he seemed stuck in an excruciatingly small gear. I kept sitting up and waiting, trying to coax him along.
“Don’t kill your father,” my mom had warned me the day before. “It’s your job to bring him back in one piece.”
He is a trooper and always has been. But that also means my dad often bites off more than he can chew. This time though, I had gotten him into this mess. Maybe I had been overly ambitious. My dad doesn’t look a day over 50, and it’s easy for me to forget that he is 62. I knew he would keep gutting it out as long as he had a pulse, but I also knew that he wouldn’t know when enough was enough. We were already four hours from home, and I had no back-up plan. Before I could think of a bail-out, my dad passed me with a smile, and there was Mike chatting his ear off about ridiculous city-imposed building codes.
Riding that second wind, we reached the halfway point before we knew it. Fifteen years ago, when my father dragged me along for my first STP, we finished our day right here. I can still remember the giant enchilada I had for dinner at a local Mexican restaurant that night. Only two months before that STP I had climbed onto my first road bike, a used, steel Specialized, complete with an 8-speed down-tube shifter and SPD pedals, my 15th birthday present.
It was ambitious to think I could take on the STP in one day, so we did it in two, but I was hooked. Racing as fast as I could those final 10 miles to cross the line in downtown Portland, 200 miles from home, I knew cycling would be more than just a hobby.
Perhaps it was also too ambitious to try this edition of STP in a single day. Mike could sense that he had the stamina and reserves to make it the full distance (his longest ride to date had been 100 miles a month prior), but Dad was flagging. Our 15.8mph average wouldn’t make the 9 p.m. cut-off time in Portland. Plus, the the course ended with short, sharp, rolling hills that deadened our legs.
On each roller, I would place a hand on the small of my Dad’s back and lifted the pace until my breathing was labored and my legs burned. I knew that if we could survive this section we would be home free with a strong tailwind in the final 40 miles.
I told my Dad to grit his teeth and hang on. Mike and I swapped pulls along the Columbia River, aided by the tailwind. The sun was getting lower, and a sense of urgency mounted. My Dad, at this point, was in obvious pain but unwilling to relent. It was unspoken: We wanted to make that nine o’clock cut off for an official result, even if it killed us. As we crossed the Columbia for a final time with 10 miles remaining, we spotted family who had come out to cheer us in our final dig to the line. Hans, Sarah, and Finn hollered loudly and we dug deeper.
In the final mile, we hit what felt like every red light in town — no time to relish our impending arrival. Sprinting alongside Dad and Mike through the finish gate, I frantically checked the clock, 8:53 p.m. We made it by seven minutes and just in time to gulp down a beer as the sun set behind the west hills of Portland. It had taken 12 and a half hours of riding and another three hours of breaks, but we made it, exhausted and triumphant.
My Dad was passed out snoring, jeans and glasses still on, before I even finished brushing my teeth. I flicked off his bedroom light and headed to bed myself, a giant smile plastered to my face. I didn’t kill him, but just barely.