Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The Bicycle Diaries: episode three

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I have recently returned from a week in San Francisco. I went for the streetcars really – but the highlight turned out to be a bike ride, over the Golden Gate bridge. This is now heavily promoted by a number of companies, is exceedingly well organized and very popular. I am not going to write about cycling in the city itself – though for a city with such fearsome hills, there is plenty of cycling going on. I just didn’t do that. My companion had not been on a bike in twenty years, yet also found the experience fun and easy.

The bikes are rented – at roughly comparable rates to those you find in Vancouver and Steveston. One word of warning though. I looked on the Tix web page (we were looking for cheap theatre as that had been such a good thing in New York) and “bike across the Golden Gate” was the first offer we saw on the “half price on line” page. Except a quick bit of googling and we found it wasn’t half price – it was the same ($36 per day) as walk up, and there was no need to book in advance. We had $5 off coupons from the many maps and brochures that tourists seem to collect easily, and we used those to buy the optional insurance. They do have a range of bikes and the one recommended – a hybrid with road tires, suspension front and rear as well as disc brakes – was very good. So good in fact that my own bike is now in the shop getting new front forks and a seat post – both with springs. And a new saddle. Something I should have thought about long ago: they are not that expensive, and make a significant difference.

The bikes come with a U Lock, and a small bag on the handlebars with detailed printed route information in a clear window  – and the key for the lock. (I decided that a cell phone with roaming that I had with me was enough and did not ask for a puncture repair kit.) The bikes had been well maintained but I did feel a little unsteady at the start. To get away from the mass start at the beginning of the day, we stopped for large cappuccinos at the community centre on the edge of the Presidio (Golden Gate Park is, confusingly, further south and not actually the one on the waterfront). There, while waiting to restart, I decided to look closer at the front forks and found that the lever arm on the axle had been left down – so the front wheel was actually free to drop off any time. That took all of one second to set right and after that my ride was much less exciting.

One thing I was pleased about was how this fat old man could ride more efficiently than many others. Inexperienced cyclists all seem very wary of using the gears, but if you are going to climb a hill, using the lower gears on a 24 speed machine makes life much easier. And I did not have to walk up any hills. There’s a short one around Fort Mason – and the stiffer climb up from Fort Point to the bridge itself. Lots of people seemed to be walking up both – quite unnecessarily, in my view. The path from Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Point is flat, mostly at sea level and shared with pedestrians. If you ride the Richmond dykes or the seawall around Stanley Park you will find this easy by comparison. Similarly, on the bridge itself you use the narrow sidewalks: the west one was under repair at the time of our visit, so we had to deal with two way bike and pedestrian traffic. Even so, some individuals on lightweight road racers thought this a good place to try for speed! Nearly all of the people on foot or cycle were visitors with digital cameras – so no-one should expect to get across the bridge quickly.

There is a large car park at the north end with a good view of the bridge – where all the car and bus tourists unload. From there it is downhill all the way into Sausalito, on the two lane road. There is a speed limit of 45mph and I felt like I might have approached that. Certainly I was moving faster than any other time I have been on a bicycle. Maybe the disc brakes added to my confidence: I don’t think I will need those here, and I have held off upgrading to them for now.

Blue & Gold fleet: ferry "Bay Monarch"

The bike rental does not include a ferry ticket ($9), but you can save time in line ups by buying them when you get the bike. They are accepted on all three ferry companies vessels – and if you decided to bike back, or go for an outing somewhere else you would get a refund on unused tickets.

There is a huge bike park at the ferry dock – and quite a nice little town to explore, with the usual range of places for lunch. The cafe next to the dock is as good a place as any. We decided not to return immediately but extended our ride around the bay to Tiburon. You could also add a visit to the headlands or the redwoods if you felt like greater exertion and still make it easily in a day. The ride out of Sausalito is an old railway right of way – dead straight, dead flat, through the salt marsh. The centre of the path is paved for cycles, the shoulders left as gravel for drainage and pedestrians – as they should be. This segregation method seemed to work far better than either painted lines or stepped construction, and should certainly be adopted in Richmond on the dykes and the Shell Road trail. It would cut the cost of bike maintenance too, as the dust from the gravel is always an issue with open bike chains and gears. Maybe a rubber chain and a hub gear should be on my list – for the next bike I buy, not this one.

The route is well signed and includes “rest stops” – including the use of a high school – a very sensible inter-agency bit of co-operation. The  middle section of the trail unfortunately puts you back on the roads – through some generic freeway oriented suburbia. I found this bit tiresome, though enlivened by the chance to take pictures of a partly restored 1953 Plymouth and some brand new Italian male menopause treatments.

1953 PlymouthFerrariMaserati

The last bit into Tiburon is back to trail again – and once more is built and maintained to a very high standard and alongside parkland. I would tell you more about Tiburon, but while we were debating the relative merits of tea or ice cream, the ferry arrived.  So we joined the line up – and then added the bikes to the considerable pile in the main deck cabin. I cannot see Translink being happy to see SeaBus used this way, if someone here decided to market the ride across the Lion’s Gate in the same way.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 7, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Posted in bicycles, cycling

3 Responses

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  1. […] The Bicycle Diaries: episode three [Stephen Rees's Blog] Pacheco Pass high-speed rail route wins again [San Francisco Chronicle] […]

    re:place Magazine

    September 8, 2010 at 9:08 am

  2. You had much better weather than when I did the same bike trip this past May. Even though it was raining, there were still significant numbers of people on the bridge. I’m not sure if you experienced this too, but the pedestrians certainly thinned out north of the first tower of the Golden Gate.


    September 8, 2010 at 12:05 pm

  3. Towards the end of our trip the fog lifted and it became very warm. On the day described the parking lot at the north end was packed and seemed to be the origin of most of the pedestrians – and crossing the entire span seemed to be the objective of many. The picture above shows the pathway from the south tower to the Presidio – and an unusually clear spot!

    Stephen Rees

    September 8, 2010 at 12:19 pm

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