Just three days before Christmas Different Spokes had its first dirt ride in ages. I really wanted to get one in before the end of the year because this is the very first year the club has had insurance that covers mountain bike rides. Although we’ve had liability insurance for decades, I suspect no one realized it was only for road rides despite the fact that mountain biking was done regularly from the late 1980s up to the mid-Oughts. The last dirt ride on the club calendar I recall was two years ago, a ride in Tilden Park on which David Sexton’s pedal came off and I got bitten by a dog and we both had to abort. I was planning to lead one earlier this year but a nasty crash in May meant I couldn’t pull on the handlebars for months. Plans for a dirt ride for November literally blew up in smoke when the Camp Fire turned our air quality into a health crisis.
Here’s a confession: I don’t like to ride trails in muddy conditions—I absolutely hate getting dirty. And cleaning my bike afterwards? It’s another chore. That’s terrible when you love dirt riding because you know the hype on mountain biking often emphasizes getting muddy and filthy, a regression of sorts to the fun of childhood. We had rain a couple of days before the ride, which really wasn’t enough time for trails to dry out completely. I went ahead with the ride anyway because, well, the year was almost over! The Different Spokes dirt crowd has dwindled but we’re not completely gone. I sent out a distress signal to the long lost Dirties and Roger Sayre was the only mountain biker who could join Roger and me. But at the last minute Nancy asked if she could tag along for the paved portion into the Headlands because she doesn’t have a mountain bike (yet).
The route was nothing unusual—it’s a standard loop for mountain bikers who live in SF: climb up Conzelman and jump onto the Coastal Trail to Rodeo Beach before picking up the Bobcat Trail and Marincello over to Tennessee Valley. Usually you turn around there and take Old Springs Trail back, which is one of the very few singletrack trails in the Headlands still open for biking. But I added an interlude out to Tennessee Beach and back before heading back to SF. Once up Old Springs you take Bobcat, another wide fire road, down and then climb back up Coastal and across the bridge to SF. The route has a sawtooth profile but all the climbs are short and nothing is too technical. It’s less than 30 miles altogether, which if it were a road ride would be on the short side. But being a dirt ride it took us over four hours to finish. Of course, all of us were rusty and the views were fantastic on such a clear day so we made sure we stopped often to take it all in.
We started and ended the ride at Velo Rouge Cafe on Arguello, which is quickly becoming my favorite hangout when I’m in the City. Besides having the right cycling vibe, for a coffee shop it is remarkably devoid of folks on their i-devices. Plus, their huevos rancheros rule. Besides the bright sunny day the other auspicious omen was that the ride actually started on time—when has that happened on a Different Spokes ride?!
Roger S quickly got us into trouble when he suggested a dirt diversion in the Presidio with which I was not familiar. Nancy was game until it turned out to be a mini-quagmire complete with narrow singletrack requiring deft manuevering in order not to fall over. She turned back and took the paved section along with Roger H to meet us at the bridge.
At Conzelman we discovered that the Park Service had turned it into a one-way road down for the winter holiday in order to ease traffic congestion. Bikes and pedestrians can still go up in the dedicated bike lane. At Coastal we bid adieu to Nancy and headed into the Headlands.
I had not ridden on the Headlands trails for about 20 years. I used to ride here a lot when I lived in SF mainly because it’s the closest real dirt to SF. There are bits of dirt trails here and there in the City but nothing of significant length. Also those trails may be dirt but there is no doubt you are in the midst of urbanity. In the Headlands you can really get away to the point that you hear no car noise at all. Here was my chance to see how the Headlands had weathered the last two decades. The trails look pretty much the same just as you would expect since there is no development going on. But trail maintenance has definitely improved. Back in the day the Headlands wasn’t part of the GGNRA—it was military, and the military was pretty much leaving everything to slowly rot in place except for the paved roads. Near the bottom of Coastal there used to be erosion gulleys that had you avoiding the center of the trail and clinging somewhat precariously on the uncertain edges. The gulleys are still there but a grader had gone over them. Old Springs was similarly eroded but the GGNRA has put in place a series of wooden erosion barriers that have kept it in great shape and prevented flowing water from turning the trail into a creek bed; at the top where it’s level they have also put in more wooden walkways over the boggy areas (it’s called Old Springs for a reason). Bobcat used to be a very bumpy ride with lots of chatter bumps. But the GGNRA must be grading that road too because it was a smooth flowing ride down.
The dirt roads in the Headlands are more intensively used than before Y2K. Back in the day I could ride all day and see maybe one or two other mountain bikers. Today there were, dare I say it, crowds! It wasn’t a mosh pit but we were frequently running into or being passed by other cyclists. And not just solo cyclists: the road affliction has hit dirt riding these days and you see ‘training rides’ on the dirt with Rapha freds doing their thing.
The day was beautiful and I was appreciating the quiet of the Headlands. When you’re road biking in the Bay Area you probably don’t realize how noisy and chaotic the environment is because you are subjected to it all the time. But when you away from traffic, houses, businesses, and almost all people as you are in the Headlands you suddently realize how ‘busy’ road riding actually is. Not that you don’t need to exercise some vigilance; it’s just vigilance of another sort. Being so vulnerable in traffic we are prey. Well, when mountain biking you are still vulnerable but it’s to falling from the constantly changing engagement of your tires with the trail surface. When road biking you don’t often think about what your tires are going to do unless the road is wet or muddy (or you’re crossing Muni tracks). But on the dirt the dialog between your tires and the path is ongoing and you need to attend to it to stay upright. For the most part though riding in the Headlands is a pretty relaxed affair because there isn’t much there that’s demanding technically and you’re not going to get broadsided by an Escalade at an intersection.
The biggest surprise brought a smile to my face: most of the cyclists we saw were on drop bar bikes. There were plenty of cyclists but only about a third of them were on mountain bikes as we were. The majority of the bikes we saw were drop-bar bikes with bigger tires, i.e. “all road” bikes and cross bikes. If you have any doubts about the efficacy of the hype about gravel bikes and bikepacking, you should take a look at the trails near SF. The latest bike fad is in full-bloom here. In this case I’m not casting a jaded eye at so-called “all road” bikes—I’m all for them. Before I got a mountain bike I was riding on dirt. But a mountain bike made it a lot easier to stay upright and walk a lot less. And a mountain bike made it possible to ride trails I never would have taken my road bike except to go for an unpleasant walk. But the Headlands and many places we now mountain bike are quite doable and enjoyable on a road bike. I doubt any of you knew that one of the earliest club rides was a full moon ride up the Railroad Grade on Mt. Tam on road bikes! Although the Specialized Stumpjumper was born a year before Different Spokes was formed, mountain bikes really did not penetrate the club until after the mid-1980s. We were used to riding our road bikes on everything. Part of the attraction of all-road bikes is that getting to the trailhead on a road bike is much less laborious than on a mountain bike, which is probably why you see tons of MTBs on car racks heading somewhere.
Near the top of Bobcat we saw a three-masted schooner outside the Golden Gate; at the top of Marincello we stopped to take in the expansive view of Mt. Tam and Tiburon below us. Roger S of course ripped the descent to Tennessee Valley. There we were greeted by a full parking lot and a large crowd of dayhikers on their way to the beach. We joined them and headed to the Pacific. At Tennessee Beach it was a dead calm day with just a tiny surf. Even so the rip current is terrible there and no one was in the water swimming or surfing. We ate our Clif bars and enjoyed the scene before heading back to Old Springs. The climb up Old Springs begins at the Tennessee Valley stables. Going up we were passed by cyclists bombing down the trail. At times it was a bit sketchy trying to get over the erosion bars while avoiding the downhill riders but eventually we got to the top. Again Roger S ripped the descent down Miwok. We made our way up the last climb, Coastal, and at the pavement were greeted by a mass of cars turning around to descend. Everyone was out to get to the Vista Point for the view. We carefully descended Conzelman in traffic and went back over the bridge.
Back at Velo Rouge Roger S ran off to meet his sister while Roger and I went in and gorged on huevos. A perfect way to end the first and last Different Spokes mountain bike ride of 2018!