Get Over It

“Passing on your left!”

Confession: I’m done with cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge. It makes me both sad and disheartened that I say that. When I lived in San Francisco, I cycled across the bridge several times a week and I used to enjoy it immensely. The ambiance, the views, and the peace & quiet couldn’t be beat. Because of my unusual work hours I would take to the bridge at almost all hours of the day. On weekends I’d do the usual ride-to-somewhere-in-Marin usually in the morning and return in the afternoon; on weekdays I even regularly crossed the bridge at night since it was the time of day I could go for a ride.

After moving to the East Bay almost two decades ago I’ve crossed the Bridge maybe a dozen times and almost all of those trips have been Jersey Rides. On Jersey Rides the bridge is astonishingly busy—borderline congested—especially in the afternoon on the way back. In a way I wish it were even more congested because then no one would be able to speed along and everyone would be going the same speed, ie. slow. It’s gotten so busy that I say without exaggeration that it is a near constant stream of cyclists crossing wheel-to-wheel.

Having a lot of cyclists is not itself a problem. But how they behave in close quarters is. A significant proportion of the traffic is visitors on rental bikes. Many if not most are casual cyclists steering unfamiliar bikes. It’s not surprising that they might be a bit unsure. But when they start taking selfies while riding across the bridge in heavy traffic I get nervous. Although their judgment might be questionable, it’s the judgment of the impatient cyclists who furiously barge into the oncoming lane at speed in order to pass that I really question. Regardless of the type of cyclists we ride amidst, we have to trust their ability and judgment in unnaturally tight quarters. In that respect it’s no different than driving a car at speed on an undivided two-lane road with traffic. But you never know when someone will make that error in judgment or succumb to a lapse in attention.

Adding to the equation is the increased amount of ‘furniture’—large equipment such as sand blasters and tanks—anchored at several points midspan. In the distant past this equipment was moved around from location to location and there was a lot less of it; at times it mostly disappeared. But now these units seem to be permanently in situ. Some of it may be part of the suicide prevention net being constructed beneath the bridge deck. That project is now two years behind schedule and currently not expected to be completed until some time in 2023. However as with so many construction projects in the Bay Area the timeline is a moving target and just keeps getting pushed back repeatedly to the point that the completion date is a mere guess. The width of the west sidewalk is about ten feet and furniture takes up maybe three feet reducing the travel width to three and a half feet in each direction. When a passing cyclist tries to create a ‘third’ lane by passing into oncoming cyclists, there is barely two and a half feet for each cyclist—that’s just a bit more than the width of a regular road bike let alone a mountain bike. That’s even less width than around the pylons, which is five and a half feet or 2.75 feet for each direction. Whether the construction equipment will ever be removed is your guess and in the meantime we have to endure an even narrower pathway with restricted sightlines.

Something happened and it seemingly was for the better: the ride across the bridge just got a lot more popular. When I moved to San Francisco in 1982 the population was just under 700,000; in 2019 it was 880,000. In that period cycling went from a niche recreational activity to mainstream partly energized by the increased use of bicycles for commuting. That 180,000 additional people includes a lot more cyclists. The rental bike business has also taken off, certainly helped by bikesharing services such as Ford, Lyft, and Bay Wheels. One look at the oncoming bridge traffic and you’ll see innumerable BS (Blazing Saddles) and SB (Sports Basement) handlebar bags. It’s just another fabulous tourist spot being loved to death. Yes, the bridge is amazing and beautiful, and thanks to all those Instagram snapping cyclists we now have thousands more visitors who want to experience it too.

Traversing the bridge in the afternoon on a Jersey Ride I find increasingly nerve-wracking. The level of vigilance it takes can turn a fun ride into labor. All it takes is for one cyclist to bobble or weave in front for the adrenaline to surge. I try to be a considerate and considered bridge user by slowing down and patiently waiting until there is more than ample room to pass, if I pass at all, and in the afternoon especially I keep my distance from other cyclists and don’t draft in order to give myself plenty of braking room. Despite my caution—or perhaps because of my caution—more and more “Rapha freds” insist upon passing at the weirdest moments—what drugs are they on? Oh, testosterone. As a longtime City denizen I think it has all been part of the change that has swept the Bay Area: increased impatience. Are we New York yet? It’s just not relaxing to ride the bridge on weekends or other peak usage times.

So what of the Jersey Ride? Here’s our most popular and well attended ride and it crosses the Golden Gate Bridge. The morning crossing is more reasonable since the traffic is moderate to low at that time. But in the afternoon it’s transformed into a moving mosh pit of diverse cyclists many of them impatient. I’m not the only Spoker who feels unsafe and is fed up with the impacted conditions and the resulting crazy behavior. If you’re riding by yourself you can adjust by crossing the Bridge at a different time when the traffic is lower. But the Jersey Ride always returns after lunch in Tiburon and we end up crossing during peak usage. One adjustment we could make is to change the start time of the JR: start it later so it would return later in the afternoon around 5. But that would mean crossing it midday to go to Marin—peak period. In any case for some that’s too late to go for a Saturday ride, and for others—especially after a late Friday night out—it might be perfect! Another adjustment is to forego crossing the Bridge in the afternoon altogether: take a ferry back from Marin. The price of a ticket—from $7 to $14—might be worth it for the peace of mind assuming you can get a ticket (hint: reserve in advance). The drawback is not only the additional cost but also the timing of the ferry departure and how you feel about sharing a crowded ferry these days. A big plus is the even more scenic ride back on the Bay: gliding below the Bridge is not only beautiful but does wonders for your smugness.

Another idea is to change the Jersey Ride—gasp, heresy! Perhaps the JR could start as usual but change the destination to Fairfax for the lunch stop. Perry’s Deli is a popular spot but there’s also the Gestalt Haus and the Coffee Roastery. The ride out is about 24 miles and a return trip to Tiburon would make a total of 40 miles, or to the Sausalito ferry landing a total of 49.5 miles—these numbers are comparable to the standard Tib loop. Or, the JR could forego crossing the GGB altogether by heading to someplace south. The trick is to come up with a compelling destination with a route that is scenic and not filled with too steep hills. A ride to either Sharp Park or Linda Mar in Pacifica would be about 40 miles although we’d have to come up with a decent lunch stop. If we could come up with a southern route, we could alternate it with the Tiburon loop so that we could skip the Bridge occasionally, say every other month.

We’ve been lucky in having very few collisions on the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been in one although no one was hurt and the bikes came out okay. At the end of a DSSF ride in Marin I was heading south on the west sidewalk by the Marin pylon when a person unsteadily piloting a mountain bike was heading north. She and I locked eyes and I could tell she was uncertain and scared. I slowed down and hit the brakes just before she weaved toward me. Unfortunately the rider behind me didn’t notice I was braking—partly because he was drinking his water bottle—and piled into me knocking me into the young woman and toppling her over the railing into the car lane. I and the fellow immediately behind her grabbed her and managed to pull her back. In retrospect I should have alerted the riders behind me when I sensed there was danger. But realistically they shouldn’t have been following so close behind me on the bridge. All it took was a set of minor bad decisions to set up an otherwise completely avoidable collision.

Regardless of the Jersey Ride we will continue to cross the Bridge at times of high usage. We can’t control the behavior of other cyclists. So remaining vigilant and keeping your guard up are critical for staying safe. First, keep your speed down. Most multi-use paths cap the speed at 15 mph. That’s probably not a bad idea for the bridge especially given how narrow it is. This is more important as you head downhill towards the towers or to the entrances where traffic is slowing and stopping, sometimes suddenly. The temptation is to go fast but you can’t see properly around the towers and the entrances are dangerous strictures. Second, keep your distance. Crossing the bridge is not the time to be pinned to the wheel in front of you. Gusts off the Pacific move bikes sideways unpredictably and the cyclist in front may abruptly brake or weave; you also can’t see well ahead of you when you’re right behind someone and can’t judge the behavior of the oncoming cyclists, the presence of furniture, or whether there is someone stopped against the railing or deciding to start riding again. Third, use your voice or a bell/horn to alert other cyclists—don’t be timid. That cyclist engaged in taking a selfie may not notice you or that they’re weaving, so get their attention. If it’s foggy, raining, or getting dark, use a light so that oncoming cyclists can see you; conversely, don’t expect others to use lights so be especially alert for ‘stealth’ cyclists. Fourth, signal your intentions: if you’re going to slow down or stop, let cyclists behind know by signalling. Fifth, don’t be a bro: it’s no big deal to cool your jets and slow down to accommodate other cyclists. Blasting around other cyclists or passing importunately—especially silently—is just being a dick. A punishment pass is a punishment pass whether it’s done by a car or another cyclist. Be cool, patient, and accommodating and you’ll get to the other side safely and maybe less frazzled.