I am Not a Tourist

Today was a stunning 60something degree day in the bay area, so despite needing to be home early for an event this evening, I decided to go on a ride with a friend into San Francisco and over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

Several things I feel it is important to mention here: 1. I had no idea where we were going or how to get there because 2. I have never ridden my bike in San Francisco before today despite having lived here for eight years. 3. I gave myself a little under three hours to ride up some pretty serious hills and across a bridge full of 4. pedestrians and tourists.

Even on BART, it looked like a bike party night – the areas near the doors of almost all the cars were crammed with bikes, helmets and locks. It was a nice sight – reassuring that the community was out in force today despite it being 12:30 on a Friday afternoon. So into the city we rode, cyclists exchanging the knowing glances that only people not going back to an office but who are about to hit open streets or trails get to share. So far, so good.

The problems started somewhere near Fisherman’s Wharf. I have no pictures of this because I could not get out of there fast enough. Between the MUNI tracks and the tourists, there was nothing for it but to just focus foreword and work on getting through to a different part of the ride. There are also some brutal cobblestones on the shoulder, which are nice to look at, but not so nice to bike over.

Despite a slightly obnoxious trip through the Wharf, we were rewarded with some shockingly nice views of the bridge from the trail we took.

the destination

Shortly after, we encountered the first real hill of the ride. I lost momentum early after being unable to get around two much slower cyclists and a family who were spread across my entire path, I could not even change gears to make it up the hill and had to stop. Eventually reaching the top, I had a few seconds to take a couple shots.

top of the first hill.

Once we got down the back side of the hill, we rode past Fort Mason, where I have only been a few times to cheer on the Oakland Outlaws. The ride along the marina was smooth, but was starting to become more clogged with people. I know that renting bikes is extremely popular in San Francisco, but I have never seen the people who rent them in action. Until now. Between people riding four abreast, weaving in and out of terrified (visiting) or visibly irritated (local) pedestrians, or just stopping for no reason in the middle of the road, it was difficult to navigate due in part to the density of foot traffic.

But I still had a view to keep me level headed about it – ‘there’s enough of this spectacular day to go around’ I told myself.

Heading towards the detour.

For the next few miles, that was true. From the point at which I was standing in the above picture, we started the several steep climbs up Crissy Fields leading to the bridge itself. Here, we were largely alone. At least once we got clear of the bottom. On these hills, because there were far fewer people on them, I was able to use better gearing and got up without incident, but with much exhaustion and out-of-breathness.

Somehow, even though we passed tons of people on the flat part of the ride, and saw no one on the ride up, there were still tons of people at the bridge itself. Unfortunately, there was also tons of construction and detours, making what was an already limited space (lanes closed, paths cut off or diverted into the parking lot) much more cramped and congested. It was in this fashion that we got onto the Golden Gate Bridge, one of San Francisco’s most iconic features.

a rest stop just before the last big hill - the only other place we saw people.

The view from the bridge is stunning. It is extremely easy to see why it is one of the most photographed places in the world. The wind wasn’t even so bad, which is saying something considering that we were inches from speeding traffic, and in the exact corridor  where the Pacific meets the bay. Unfortunately, I only took a precious couple of pictures from the very beginning of our trip across.

the shoreline just below the bridge. You can just make out the crazy paddle boarder heading out into the surf.
finally heading across! sailboat offers a nice size comparison.

I really, really wanted to enjoy this ride. I have been thinking about biking this bridge for a while, and after the labor of getting to it, the view wants to feel like its own reward. But the unfortunate truth of the Golden Gate Bridge is that two directions of foot and bike traffic share a singular path on one side. If everyone knew how to conduct themselves in such a setting, it would be a very different thing. But after having to stop several times because unsupervised children were darting around, rented bikes wove out in front of me, construction narrowed the already insufficient pathway, and some guy pretended he was going to throw his girlfriend in front of my bike, I was really ready to be back in a bike lane where I could at least overtake a slower cyclist and most of these people would do almost anything to avoid being there.

A couple things occurred to me during this whole adventure. Firstly, I am overwhelmingly convinced that I never, ever want to bike near pedestrians again if I can help it. Being part of traffic has some serious cons – including this hit-and-run, which happened in Berkeley recently – but it was only today as I rode my brakes and tried to contain my frustration that I realized how much safer I feel in a right lane than I do on a path where cars are not allowed. Secondly, I am recognizing that I like my rides to be relaxing. Give me hills, flats, rollers, water, desert, or trees. Give me a city with potholes and broken glass or a completely empty road that goes on forever. When we think of ‘relaxing spaces’, we conjure very specific things. But after today, a ride across a beautiful bridge with views that make you feel small and dazzled by how amazing the world can be is getting crossed off the list. Ambiance can only do so much.

That being said, it should come as no surprise that once we got back into civilization, I was grateful to be contending with traffic rather than human bodies wandering around. I took off in the bike lane, drilling out my accumulated frustration from the previous two hours, and felt a little better once I arrived back at BART to head back into the East Bay. Sometime soon, I want to try this ride again, maybe on an overcast day or in the middle of the night, and see if I enjoy it more.

If you come to San Francisco, I recommend the bridge. Don’t let the angst fool you – it is still a beautiful, challenging ride. It was just ‘challenging’ on too many levels at once for me today.

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