I went on a ride a bit ago with some folks training for the annual Seattle to Portland ride, or STP as it is known in cycling circles. It caused a bit of reminiscing about my prior ventures doing STP, four of them in one-day each, spreading from 1993 to 2007, and similarly ranging from barely dragging across the finish line to a solid finish in ten hours total time (which included a broken wheel at the century mark).
As I was riding with and talking to five folks who had never done it, I was pondering the top things I would pass along to a rider contemplating STP for the first time. Here are the top tips I would pass along, all of which are just common sense and none of which are PhD level, exercise/physiology degree kinds of things, but nonetheless are a good place to start before you hit the starting line.
1) Be realistic about the training to complete STP. If you have never done a "fast" century, much less never having done a century at all, don't plan on rolling up to the line and completing a 206-mile day without some difficulty. And if your longest ride of the season so far is to the neighborhood coffee shop, get serious about a plan to put in the mileage and how long it will really take.
2) To figure out the training and mileage, go to the STP website and take a look at their training suggestions: http://shop.cascade.org/content/events/stp-suggested-mileage. They have a very reasonable schedule of rides that involve some mileage mid-week and longer rides on the weekend. Anyone planning to do STP should take a look at the suggested mileage and make sure they are doing at least this many miles. The suggested mileage won't turn you into an all-star, but it will ensure that you have the bike time needed to make your day reasonable. BTW, the biggest mileage week for 2-day riders is 180 miles (20/80/80) and 210 for 1-day riders (40/20/100/50).
3) Along with making yourself ready, make sure that your bike is ready. Go into a shop with real humans, and not just disaffected shop rats, and say something like, "Here is the bike I am planning to ride at STP. I would like to make sure it is ready." This will probably lead immediately to at least a basic tune-up, which will involve the mechanic going through the whole bike and making sure that everything works, is greased, tightened, adjusted or otherwise ready. Chains need to be replaced and the shop should check that. (Replacing the inexpensive chain means you don't have to replace the expensive cogset or chain rings). You may want to consider some simple upgrades, for instance on some nicer riding and easier rolling tires, but as the event approaches, don't make big changes to your contact points (seat, handlebars, pedals) and if you are making other changes, make sure you get at least a few hundred miles on the new stuff to make sure it is sound and ready.
Also, take the time to schedule a mini-tune up right before you leave for the event. A quick check to make sure the brakes are adjusted, the drivetrain (chainring/chain/cogs/shifters/derailleurs) are all clean & lubed, and there isn't anything in need of replacing will help increase your chances of making it through the day without an unnecessary mechanicals. Also, make sure that your tires have appropriate tread left. All in all, it not only is smart, it takes away one more thing to worry about the day of the event.
4) Bike Fit. For the most part a professional bike fit is considered an optional item, but for almost every rider it is a good idea. A professional fit will make sure that your position on the bike is both comfortable and efficient. When you are putting power to the pedals, you might as well make sure that you are getting the most out of the effort you are exerting. Also, numb hands, sore backs, tingling privates, etc. are not required items for rides and are unwelcome partners over a long ride or long weekend. Even if you aren't on your dream bike today, getting a position dialed in can be translated to any other bike down the road. Also, keep in mind that your ideal position will change over time due to age, flexibility, weight, injuries and the wear and tear of life. Your position should also reflect your riding plans, which may change from riding to racing to commuting to centuries to whatever over time, so don't neglect a bike fit at appropriate times in your cycling life.
5) Nutrition - Nutrition at STP ain't rocket science. Nutrition at RAAM may be, but riding 100 miles doesn't involve NASA level plans or foods. Eat and drink a reasonable amount for each hour you are on the bike, whether it is sports drink or chocolate chip cookies, and remember that eating and drinking depending on exertion level and the amount you sweat. If you are tooling along at a slow pace on a cool day, it doesn't take a lot. Many commentators say that anything less than 60 minutes and you don't need anything but water. Really. Leave the gel packs at home. On the other hand, do some long rides and figure out what your stomach and head want. Top level athletes will do a 4-12 hour rides on everything known to man, from specific nutrition drinks & gels, to sandwiches and bananas, to M&M's and soda. Sports nutrition has great products, but keep in mind the shampoo rule: you don't really have to lather, rinse and repeat - it's just a way to get you to use more shampoo.
6) So, after you have yourself ready, think about your group. Spend time with the folks you will ride with to find out how the group dynamic will work. Talk about plans for flats, injuries, break-downs and consider some contingency plans. Also, make a plan for what will happen if some want to ride faster or slower or the needs of some don't line up with the needs of others. I have done rides with the "see you at the finish line" philosophy and others with the "we are going to make it together or we won't make it at all" philosophy. You may have to make some game-day changes, but go in with an alignment on the way to do the ride to keep everyone on the same page. This reminds me of some funny stories of rides.
7) And lastly, and very importantly, Have Fun. It ain't landing at Normandy. There is support available all along the way and there are an abundance of friendly people everywhere, so don't act like you are the first person to ever conquer this particular challenge and you have to be deadly serious to do so. My fastest and slowest and hardest rides all had miles of conversation and camaraderie. Heck, that's why I like to ride with other people. About 10,000 people will do STP this year with roughly 2,000-2,500 doing it in one day. Take the endeavor seriously, but have fun doing it.
And feel free to stop by and ask Steve for advice and recommendations. He has helped hundreds and hundreds of people get through STP and have a good time doing it.