City vs. Suburb

For some time the Different Spokes ride calendar has been heavily populated with rides that start outside of San Francisco. The notable exceptions are the Early Bird and Hump Day rides, which are quite numerous, and of course the monthly Jersey Ride. When club rides start in San Francisco they mostly go to Marin—think Tiburon loop—and less frequently take in San Bruno Mountain. That isn’t to say that the San Francisco members don’t ride in San Francisco—I’m sure you do because when I lived in San Francisco I did a lot of my riding within the city. There is something to be said for the convenience of simply stepping outside your front door and taking off for a ride. Getting outside of SF for a ride—as opposed to riding from SF to outside—involves more time and the hassle of getting “there”: taking BART or Caltrain, or taking a car and possibly crossing a bridge. That’s extra time to get ready and then travel before you even get to pedal. For a Saturday or Sunday ride maybe that’s something to look forward to. But for any other day—and most weekends—it’s just a lot easier to start from home especially if you have to work that day or have a typically busy Bay Area life.

That is, if you live in San Francisco. In the early days of the club that meant almost everybody (“There are gay men and lesbians living outside of San Francisco??”) The initial outreach that formed the club was, believe it or not, putting flyers on bikes that the founders noticed parked mainly in the Castro district as well as posting them in a few local bike shops. So the early club was overwhelming San Franciscan. When word spread about the club it didn’t take long for the suburban members to come out of the closet/woodwork and join. Where members live now is more dispersed throughout the Bay Area. Currently about 55% of you live in the city, 15% in the Midpeninsula or South Bay, 20% in the East Bay, 5% in the North Bay, and 5% outside the Bay Area. So we’re still a majority San Francisco club but more of us reside in the suburbs now. (Calling San Jose a ‘suburb’ is a stretch—it’s a big city in its own right.)

Even the club ride leaders who live in San Francisco like to lead rides outside of the city. But the ride leaders who live in the suburbs rarely if ever lead a ride in or just starting in San Francisco. This is entirely understandable: riding in the city has its attractions but it’s a taste that is acquired rather than coming naturally. Almost everything is denser in SF—peds, cyclists, cars—and lights and stop signs are everywhere (which some, ahem, consequently ignore). One nicety is that the average speed of cars in San Francisco seems to be much lower than in the suburbs where I live and car drivers in SF generally speaking seem to have more experience driving alongside cyclists. But cycling in the exurbs, or at least in areas with more open space, is what drives folks to get in their car/BART/Caltrain and escape the confines of the City even while that open space is slowly been consumed by development. The difference is that in San Francisco you can still walk almost everywhere but here in the ‘burbs it is much more difficult to navigate life without a car. More cars, higher speed, and less experience with cyclists equals more danger for cyclists. Yet somehow the exurbs are preferred for riding!

For many of us the “gold standard” of recreational cycling is not just getting out of the city but getting out to truly rural areas where you are surrounded by nature—such as it is—rather than detached single family dwellings, lawns, and lots of cars. That’s why so many San Francisco cyclists head across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin where more open space exists mainly due to agricultural trusts. Relics of open space exist around the Bay Area but they’re hemmed in by expanding urban lines. State, county, and regional parks as well as water districts and a few land trusts limit some development. But private lands such as ranches are fair game for housing. With the “housing emergency”—that really should be called a growth emergency—we can expect our existing open space to be eroded at a faster pace, making it even harder to get away from city and suburb. Although you wouldn’t notice it if your world has devolved solely to San Francisco, here in Contra Costa County country roads have vanished to be replaced by suburban tracts well within living memory. For example I recall doing club rides amidst empty grass fields in what is now Danville and San Ramon. Those spaces are now middle-aged neighborhoods that one would never realize were green hills just thirty-five years ago. Even today the City of San Ramon continues to expand on the west side of I-680 into the hills, green just two or three years ago are now encrusted with enormous housing developments such as The Preserve.

It’s going to be harder and harder to find those elusive country roads and the ones that seemed safe now are going to have increasing amounts of traffic as housing density increases. Some of those quieter roads make enticing cut-through routes for commuters when the freeways are jammed. For years beautiful Pinehurst Road in the Berkeley/Oakland hills has been a ‘secret’ route when Highway 24 is clogged since it’s so easy to get to via Highway 13 and 24. This narrow, curvy, and otherwise quiet road regularly has commuter cars speeding at 40+ mph trying to make up for lost time by racing down the grade hellbent. I learned the hard way not to cycle on Pinehurst from 3 to 7 PM on weekday afternoons. The same is true for Redwood Road: commuters use it to bypass 880 and 680 and race their cars as if they had the road all to themselves. In this respect as cyclists we are experiencing a form of ‘habitat’ loss and we have to move further and further away from the core Bay Area to ride quiet roads.

One solution is to switch roads: go off-road. From San Francisco it’s not that difficult to get to the beckoning dirt roads of Sweeney Ridge to the south or the Marin Headlands to the north. However unless you drive to the start you will still have to deal with cycling on roads to get to the good stuff and if you drive you’re becoming part of the problem. A few years ago I led a dirt ride in the Headlands after a long hiatus—like, decades—and discovered that there were a lot more cyclists particularly on ‘gravel’ bikes’ using the Headlands on a Sunday. It wasn’t unpleasantly crowded; in fact, it was great to see so many other cyclists. But it also intimates, perhaps sadly so, that to enjoy cycling you may have to get off the streets and cede them to automobiles.

A drastic solution is to move out of the urban center to places that offer more peaceful roads like Mendocino, the Gold Country, or Central California. If you’re stuck in the Bay Area for other reasons, then it’s not an easy solution for you. People fleeing the Bay Area for quieter locales is why Lake Tahoe is currently experiencing a housing shortage. We take the problem with us because we are the problem. Nonetheless it’s become a thing to cash out your Bay Area home and move to, say, Oregon where it’s less crowded. And Oregonians complain about being Californicated!

The less obvious solution is to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse: look for the attraction in urban riding. Urban riding is not just to be tolerated but can be embraced for its hidden attractions. Number one is convenience and time savings: it’s just outside your door and preparation time is minimal. You spend more time riding, less time in its penumbra, freed sooner to get on with your busy life. The second is exploration: there are a lot more streets in cities and suburbs than in the countryside and each one may hold something unexpected and glorious. In the case of a club ride to Pacifica this past spring, David Go. found us a cute little coffee house just off the well-trodden path. This coffee house (I use the word ‘house’ hesitantly because it was smaller than an apartment living room) had delicious coffee and treats as well as a comfortable and sunny back patio where we schmoozed and lapped up our caffeine. The third is you go slower. Slower?! Well, not all the time but those stop signs and red lights plus pedestrians and cars can be viewed as impediments or as a siren call to chill and enjoy the ride. Or, you can use the opportunity of each stop light to work on your track stand and your subsequent sprint. When I lived in SF I got tired of unclipping (and in the old days unclipping meant getting out of your toeclips and straps) at each light and pretty quickly learned how to track stand. Fourth is the innumerable opportunities to check out another eatery. We’re not like Italy where you can cycle in the countryside and in the middle of nowhere find an incredible inn serving farm-to-table meals. More likely you are to run into a McD. But in urban settings like SF you will pass by many of the estimated 10,000 restaurants and food stands we have. Fifth, the majority of streets in San Francisco actually don’t have lots of traffic despite the density because city drivers tend to use the wider thoroughfares and avoid the lesser streets with lots of stop signs. Those streets are admirably comfortable for cycling. For example, everybody likes to take the Great Highway when heading north or south. But most of the numbered avenues are relatively calm as well. And some of the houses have very interesting front ‘yards’!

If you’re looking for something more challenging, the City has several loops where you can bust a gut. The Early Birds head up Twin Peaks by Corbett Avenue. This is part of a great training loop of about five miles and you can always do several laps if you want more. The Presidio Hills loop is another challenging ride with five or six short, steep climbs. Of course, there is always the race loop in Golden Gate Park where you can do training races Tuesday early evenings during the summer. And the oval track at the Polo Field in the Park is the classic place to work on your sprint speed or just chill with your buds as it is so easy to converse at length without shouting doing laps. If you’re after this kind of cycling, you’re probably not too interested in what the aesthetics of your surroundings are so it won’t matter whether you’re riding in the city or the country. If you’re a member, be sure to take a gander at our club RideWithGPS collections for more ideas on where to ride your bike in San Francisco.