I've always felt that life is too short to remain a spectator, and as a devoted cyclist I believe the best relationships can be made while riding. With that in mind, and a need to get away from my computer and regular routine, I set off on a bike-riding adventure into San Francisco via the train with two riding buddies, Matty and Henri.
The plan? Take our fixed-gear road bikes on CalTrain from Mountain View, California to San Francisco on a sun-soaked Saturday and visit as many urban-focused bike and independent coffee shops as possible. We wanted to explore the city on our bikes, meet new people, discover new places and enjoy each other's company. Social media isn't very social if there isn't face-to-face interaction now and then.
Armed with a detailed plan, a Carradice saddle bag full of food and light rain jackets, plus a fully-charged iPhone for GPS directions, we set off from Mountain View after meeting outside Red Rock Coffee, a block away from the train station.
Curiously, we were passed by a narrow-hipped and bearded fixie-riding hipster on our way to Red Rock; seems he was intent on grabbing a cup from Red Rock before grabbing the same train. His bare-framed Bianchi Pista was modified with chopped-down handlebars like many we're seeing in our neighbourhood.
The CalTrain deck filled up quickly with passengers heading north, many of whom had their bikes along for the ride. Thankfully CalTrain offers a few bike-friendly cars, so it's rare that a cyclist has to wait for storage space.
As Henri was laying down a righteous teenage skid near the train tracks, a wide-shouldered and fit looking gentleman rolled up on his chrome Bianchi Pista, decked out with a Zipp carbon disc rear wheel and a svelte rainbow-striped white Specialized Toupe saddle. Juan, as we came to find out later, also lives in Mountain View, and was heading up to the city for a day on the bike as well.
Matty, who's also one of my mountain bike riding buddies, was born the year I graduated from high school (1984), and is held captive by all things social media. To his credit, he's one of the more personable guys I know, and makes friends quickly. "Let's Twitter our adventure!" he said with his typical enthusiasm.
Not one to pass up some social media dabbling, I began snapping a few pics and uploaded random posts as the day progressed. Readers of the BikeRadar Twitter posts were instantly receptive, even on a Saturday, which brought some interactivity to the drill.
This trip was my second attempt at enjoying San Francisco by bike. Back in March, my wife Jean and I took bikes on the train to check out Pedal Revolution and Ritual Coffee. I didn't factor in the extreme hills of the Potrero neighbourhood (where, coincidentally, OJ Simpson spent his childhood). Our adventure turned into a misguided romp over hill and dale, and I vowed to find a better route coming off the 22nd Street CalTrain station toward the Mission District.
Our plan was to visit the coolest bike and coffee shops, including Pedal Revolution, Valencia Cyclery, Freewheel Bike Shop, Four Barrel Coffee, Mojo Bicycle Cafe, San Francisco Cyclery and American Cyclery.
With temperatures in the low 70s, we enjoyed unseasonably warm weather for mid-October in San Francisco. The nice folks at Pedal Revolution were busy helping customers. Matty bought a locally-made cap, while Henri shopped for a 'nad pad, a popular item at PR. They were out of stock, and recommended we try Valencia down the street.
A quick jaunt down 21st Street through the Mission District to Valencia was like traveling through a Tim Burton movie: a curious parade of characters, costumes and bikes of all stripes flowed in a delightful current of colour. All we were missing were Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter.
As promised, Valencia had the Lizard Skins 'nad pad, which gave Henri a much more comfortable ride once we headed toward Freewheel. The shop, opened in 1978, was a dream come true in this day of concept stores: a wall of chrome lugged steel Colnago track frames behind the checkout counter; glass display cases oozing with Phil Wood hubs, Sugino cranks, Brooks saddles, Nitto stems and handlebars, and cotton cycling caps of all denominations for sale. Mental notes were made for our next visit, and recommendations for friends were catalogued in our memory banks.
A few short blocks north and we found Four Barrel Coffee, a high-ceilinged joint that roasts its own and plays music on a record player with a needle. The unpretentious establishment has a simple menu, with just seven items on the drinks menu. The open space felt comfortable, and the place was packed. Employees' bikes could be seen near the back dock, hanging neatly by their front wheels on hooks.
Properly caffeinated, we strolled outside to eat our picnic lunch on the curb, next to a vintage BMW motorcycle. We struck up a delightful conversation with a couple who had recently moved to San Francisco from Seattle, as a constant stream of bicycles flowed past.
Fuelled and ready, we snaked our way to busy Market Street before angling toward Mojo, a few miles away on Divisadero Street. Moments after crossing Market onto the slightly uphill Octavia bike lane, Henri's foot pulled out of his toe strap as he prepared to muscle up the climb. The rear wheel caught the white painted striping at a bad angle and the combination of events caused him to crash pretty hard on his right shoulder.
Matty, riding behind me and in front of Henri, hopped off his bike and scooped Henri off the street. I pulled his bike onto the sidewalk while Matty (an expert at crashing) made sure Henri was okay. Like a trooper, Henri rolled his arm to check for any damage, asked about the condition of his bike and got back on his steed.
The Hayes Valley/Duboce Triangle area is somewhat hilly, but there was ample space to ride in traffic. Turning left onto Fell Street, though, proved to be a bit much, as I was concerned about Henri yanking on his narrow bars with an injured shoulder. We stormed up Fell the best we could before taking refuge from traffic on the sidewalk, walking our bikes to Scott Street.
Nearing the famous Haight District, we found Mojo Bicycle Cafe, a bright orange building with several bikes and their owners on the sidewalk. In business since 2007, the narrow confines and alternative '70s and '80s music proved inviting. The cafe in the front flows into the bike shop portion in the back.
As Henri and Matty were checking out the menu and walking toward the back patio, I spotted a familiar face: local resident and mountain bike pioneer Gary Fisher, the David Bowie of the bike industry, having lunch with a friend in his custom suit. He exchanged pleasantries and I introduced him to my riding buddies before checking out the bike shop portion of the building.
Urban bikes from Swobo, Jamis and Kona lined one wall, while commuter accessories and softgoods lined the other. One of the owners and I struck up a friendly conversation, and Henri bought a sticker for his friend Mia.
Of course, no Twitter adventure would be proper without a gratuitous celebrity photo, so I snapped one of Gary and his friend as they left the cafe. Matty and Henri had met one of the masters of the two-wheeled universe, and were pleased.
The adventure was quickly coming to a close, though, two bike shops shy of our goal. We decided to nix visiting San Francisco Cyclery and American Cyclery, on the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park, a few miles away. We had to be at the 22nd Street CalTrain station by 4.20pm, so we opted to cruise back through the Mission District toward the freeway.
The day didn't end without slogging up a few more hills, though. By this time we were so pleased with how the day unfolded that we didn't mind a little extra elevation.
From Mojo we rode south on Divisadero, which turned into Castro. We cut left on 16th Street to Mission, which was lined with discount shops of every item imaginable. It was a major cluster of cars, motorcycles, buses, taxis and bikes, but it all worked. Actually, bikes had the advantage of getting around parked delivery trucks and taxi cabs.
Once we arrived at the 22nd Street station, Matty and Henri found a little time to practice some trackstanding and skidding before the train arrived. Three young skateboard punks across the tracks were doing their tricks before noticing ours.
After boarding the train at 4.20pm, we saw Juan with his chrome Bianchi Pista sitting comfortably on the handrail in the bike car. We introduced ourselves, and shared stories about our day on the bike. Juan took his bike through the northern portion of the city, riding through Golden Gate Park and to the ocean. As we discussed his adventure, Matty asked what gearing Juan was running. Turns out our 61-year-old friend pushes a 56 x 12, and by the looks of his dolphin-like thighs, he's no worse off for the effort.
We discussed several topics, including work, travel, family and Mountain View, our shared city. I mentioned Red Rock Coffee, and we exchanged business cards. Juan promised to take the three of us on a bike adventure to the East Bay and Berkeley, an adventure I'm sure will be another one for the memory bank. I just hope we can keep up with him!
Looking back on our day on the bike, we agreed it was something we enjoyed and should be repeated often. The sights, sounds and people made it memorable, and the riding itself was the best way to experience one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
*According to Google Maps, estimated driving costs (not including parking) would've been US$41.56. Our individual CalTrain fare was US$12 round trip.