Posted by: Ian | April 24, 2010

San Francisco

Upon learning that we necessarily had an unplanned week to spend in San Francisco my first task was to find a pair of hotel rooms and my second task was to hire a bike. To get the local know-how I asked a couple of dismounting cyclists for a recommended bike store and they independently referred me to a shop called Freewheel. Instead (I don’t know why…) I went to Pacific Bicycles, where I picked up a Giant TCR C2 for the week for $150. I couldn’t be more pleased. When I was looking for a carbon road bike last year this was my reference: if I’d have been able to walk into a real bike shop and buy one from the store I was inclined to do it. But I couldn’t and I ended up, happily, with the Felt.

I did manage to try a different Giant at Bicycle Chain in Taunton and although there was nothing much wrong with it the geometry didn’t suit me. Instead of shipping in proper sizes (e.g. 58 cm), Giant has a letters system (S, M, L, XL) with the hope, I guess, that you can fill the gaps by adjustments to the saddle and stem. It didn’t astonish me, therefore, that the TCR L seemed oversized for me. I loved it immediately anyway because it’s so fast and light up the hills. Riding it back to the hotel, I beat Paula and the girls who had taken a cab. A day or so later I noticed while I was out cycling that the saddle was jammed right at the front of the rail – re-positioning it at the centre resolved the Giant’s problematic giantness and now it’s a decent fit, though not quite as good for me as the Felt’s.

My next outing on it was to our San Fran office the following morning for a 6 a.m. video conference. I’d conceived these commutes as breezy little runs that would save me hunting around for a taxi in the early hours. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would not only be dark but it might also be raining, and on that first morning it rained heavily. Shortly after I sluiced away from the hotel my back wheel slipped into a tram groove and I only just kept upright. It was still the best way to travel and I arrived in time to get a coffee and bagel and dry off a little.

My first non-commute was a trip to the Apple store to pick up an iPad. We’d gone in to buy one on the same day that I got the bike but then they didn’t have the 64 Gb model that I wanted in stock. The next day I called to check and found that they were back in. The ride from the hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf along Stockton Street, which the previous day had been a $12 cab ride, took just under eight minutes. In fact, the amount I’ve saved in cab fares this week has gone a long way to paying for the bike rental. Better still, the ride was huge fun, straight through Chinatown, and through different streets in Chinatown on the way back.

The first place that I headed to for purely recreational purposes was Lombard Street. It has been great to ride up and down some of those “The Streets of San Francisco” roller-coaster hills, although they’re not extensive enough to serve as proper sportive training.

On many of the steep hills there are signs warning motorists to park with the handbrake on and the front wheel set into the kerb to prevent rolling. On the steepest hills the cars park perpendicular to the sidewalk.

My specific target on Lombard Street was the famous section that weaves up/down the hill, unlike every other street I can see here that runs straight on a rectilinear grid. I passed close to Coit Tower and then found my way onto some other part of Lombard and cycled along it until I came to the interesting stretch. The last section leading to it is, I found, horizontal-parking steep and as I cycled up it my courier bag holding shopping + D-lock started swinging in front of me with the consequence that I was making the ride look even harder than it is. Approaching the top, a group of Japanese who had been photographing and videoing my comedy bike style broke out into applause. It turned out that the curvy section of Lombard Street that I’d arrived at was One Way and against me: getting to the other end and cycling down remains a task for tomorrow.

When I first started cycling around I noticed that there were quite a few people on single speed bikes and this piqued my curiosity: how, I wondered, did they manage up the hills? I have the answer. While roads such as Market Street, The Embarcadero and Marine Boulevard are all thick with bikes, there are many, many roads that are more or less bike-free. This is because most cyclists navigate around the City very easily avoiding the hills.

My circuits around San Fran have been fun and have taken me to far more of the city than I would have otherwise managed this week. Nonetheless, the actual net mileage has been low enough to qualify as a rest week.

Yesterday, we all explored the Fisherman’s Wharf area on a three hour segway tour, which we all loved. Now I want to do a segway tour in every city where they have them.

Today, Paula, Zoe and Heidi hired bikes and we all went for a ride along the waterfront to the Golden Gate Bridge, with the intention of crossing it to Saulsalito and then getting the ferry back. It’s a popular and delightful route and all went well until we got onto the bridge. There, I faced the most challenging stretch of cycling that I can recall.

I have what I call for convenience “vertigo” but rather than being a fear of heights it’s a fear of jumping. I have a genuinely hard time being next to any calamitous drop from which I could easily launch myself to certain death without hitting anything on the way down. When I had imagined cycling over the bridge I had images of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge in my mind, which though of psychologically similar scale, has chain link fencing or bars to keep you on it. Here, as Paula’s photo shows, there is only a railing of about the same height as my saddle that, crossing in this direction, you’re supposed to ride right next to.

Now, this is great and affords unspoilt views across the bay and I wouldn’t wish it to be different. But after cycling to the first of the two pillars I had to stop. Retreating to the road side of the pillar I considered whether I could make it across the rest of the bridge. Paula, who has seen the effort it took me to walk across exposed sections of Madeira’s levadas and could see that the Golden Gate bridge was about 2 km across, suggested I turn round. This was probably good advice but I really wanted to get to Sausalito and I resent being restricted by an absurd mental weakness. Zoe proposed that we walk the rest of the bridge with her to my rail side and this is what we did. I watched the traffic and had a lovely chat with her about, inter alia, her grade 5 music theory exam, which we discovered this morning that she has passed. Towards the latter part of the bridge there’s a sign telling people not to jump off and since the remainder of the pathway has safety fencing above railing I got back on the bike and cycled it.

We had a good time in Sausalito and I’m glad we made it over. I won’t, though, do it again until I’ve made progress with my “vertigo”.

While we were having lunch and shopping I had my Garmin 500 stuffed in my jeans pocket. When I took it out to put it back on the bike I found that the screen was irreparably damaged. It has become such an essential part of my cycling that I’ll be getting a new one from Evans on Monday. Garmin have a new colour (silver/grey) that would set off my Felt a bit better but I don’t think it’s available yet; in any case, I’ve become attached to the blue and it goes, almost, with the Tempo.


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