As someone that has ridden group rides in a grand total of 2 different states, I feel uniquely positioned to have an opinion on the best group rides of the entire planet. It is from this perspective of decades of experience and miles of riding that I can say with absolute authority: The Seattle to Portland ride from Cascade Bicycle Club is the absolute best group ride, anywhere, ever.
OK. So all hyperbole aside, this really is an incredibly well run and enjoyable ride. Every year they offer up tickets for 10,000 participants – and every year they sell out. Participants can opt to do the approximately 210 mile course in either one or two days – both of which are fully supported.
This year saw a change in route from previous years, diverting riders through military property of the Lewis-McChord joint base. Here, two day riders enjoyed the sandwiches and wraps of the first day’s lunch stop under the shade of Military aircraft wings and other assorted military vehicles. The closed roads of the base provided a nice break with almost no car traffic present – although riding past signs warning of shells being fired over the roadway was a little unnerving.
The first day was overcast but comfortable, with a max recorded temperature of 73 degrees. Day 1 features what is famously known as “the big hill” just outside of Puyallup. Beginning at about mile 43 there is a gain of about 400 feet over 3 miles. While the Pacific Northwest is generally quite hilly and rugged, the organizers have found a route that is actually surprisingly flat – and this is indeed the single biggest climb. Personally I actually found the small climb into Napavine on the second day more challenging. While not nearly as long or high, it comes at a time early on the second day when many are still shaking off the stiffness of the first day’s ride. All that effort is definitely rewarded, however. If you ever do this ride, you absolutely must stop for the banana bread at the top of the hill in Napavine.
I happen to have friends and family that live very close to Centralia so myself and my riding buddy didn’t camp at the college. However, after overhearing some of the great stories the next day we both talked about doing the camping bit next time we do this ride. Part of your ride fees include transportation of your bags, via truck, to the midway and finish lines both days. In other words, you get to enjoy your ride while someone else handles the logistics of getting your camping gear transported.
At various times along the route – especially at the beginning where folks are really bunched up – there were police helping to control intersections and minimize conflict between the cyclists and motorists. While some of the route is on dedicated bike paths and/or closed roads (like in the military base) the vase majority of the route is on normal roads with normal traffic.
One noticeable exception to this is crossing the Lewis And Clark bridge into Oregon. The bridge is two lanes in both directions, with almost no shoulder. In addition to that, this is logging country and the shoulders are littered with tree bark and pieces of wood that could make the trip disastrous. To help alleviate this, local police hold the cyclists up at one side of the bridge waiting for a group of significant numbers to form. Then, the bridge is closed to traffic in one direction and the cyclists are allowed to cross with full use of the two south bound lanes. There are some sketchy expansion joints on the bridge to be aware of, but overall it creates a great experience with minimal issues.
From there, a full half of the second day is in the state of Oregon along Highway 30. While not especially hilly, the rollers at that point in the route can be a little taxing – especially if you start to try and rush getting to the end. However, the shoulders along 30 are wide enough that great pace lines can form.
And then there is the finish line. There is actually a fair amount of time spent in down-town Portland proper, but you can feel the excitement and anticipation (or suffering for some) as everyone realizes the end is close, but not yet there. Suddenly you find the sidewalks becoming fuller and fuller. Then kids start holding their hands out for high-fives. Then you start to feel like a finisher of the Tour de France as the barricades start, holding back folks cheering for their friends, family… and everyone else. Hand slapping spectators while riding along… I can’t imagine a better note to end on.