Riding in California

While in San Francisco for Photonics West 2010 at the end of January I tacked on two days of vacation time, one to explore the city and one to ride a bike, in addition to a week of fitting in eating and exploring around my attendance of about 70 talks at the conference crammed into 5 and a half days.

Briefly, the highlights of the week included some of the best pizza I’d ever had at a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, basil, red onion and olives on a hand-tossed crust. Early morning runs along the Embarcadero, cracking out 7 minute miles had never been so easy in my entire life, down at sea-level, cool salt breeze, and shedding the tights of the last three months for just shorts. A fantastically welcoming yoga studio at the health club I joined so I’d have access to a pool to swim in for the week. Discovering the lunch-buffet at Whole-Foods, especially the curly-kale salad. An evening walk to the top of Nob hill and listening to the bells of the cathedral ringing out over the city at sunset. Seeing Clint Eastwood, Matt Damon, and Steve Jobs… (Ok that’s totally not a highlight, but it was at least entertaining to see other people getting really excited about them). Best lemon macarons I’d ever eaten, they had taller feet than I’d ever seen in my entire life. An excellent paella one day for lunch, squash, pumpkin seeds, pimento and arborio rice. A delicious chicken shish pita from a tiny Jewish restaurant smack dab in the middle of chinatown, grilled by an absolutely tiny 70 year old Jewish man hustling around the kitchen. A tour of the Museum of Modern Art that had me totally lose track of time one evening. Perhaps the best combination of least anticipated and most appreciated, was an exceptionally majestic evensong service back at Grace cathedral. The organ inside was even more ear-filling than the bells outside, it bracketed a collection of very appropriate readings from Jonah, in brief: the Lord had better plans than Jonah, Jonah’s heart was set on making best outcome from the current course of action, God’s plan was to turn everything upside down and start a new and unforseen story, not make the best of the old one. The best decision making process is one based on listening.

The day of exploring town included a climb to the top of Coit tower and fantastically clear views from the top of Telegraph hill, Dungeness crab for lunch at Fisherman’s wharf, a beautiful walk through Golden Gate Park in the rain, a much enjoyed visit to the deYoung Museum and if the theme hadn’t already made itself evident, a great dinner of cream of roasted artichoke soup and polenta with a delicious mushroom sauce.

Then I got to ride a bike!

I wanted to make an ascent of Mount Tamalpais, as it’s the classic ride from the area that I’d known about for a few years. With a bit more research I figured out which other strips of pavement I wanted to roll along and rather quickly had myself about 100 miles of riding I’d like to fit in on the day. The morning started out a bit chilly and somewhat foggy but soon enough I was on my way, up and over the Golden Gate Bridge and rolling along the bay front in Sausalito. I made my first ascent up and over the hills from Sausalito towards the Pacific on wet pavement through some dense trees. I crested the top of a hill and started a very fun descent back towards the ocean. The huge advantage of building roads in California is that they don’t have to worry about ice or snow. That means that they can bank the corners to let cars get around them faster. That also means that it’s darn near a roller coaster ride when you’re tearing along on a bike.

Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010
Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010
Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010

I then headed north along the coastal highway in bright sunlight. The day was beautiful and I enjoyed fields of blooming flowers, blue skies and great views out over the ocean. When I eventually turned east, and back uphill from the ocean, the road was narrow and very small. I saw a grand total of one vehicle, parked by the side of the road, some guy was harvesting some wood from the forest to turn on the lathe. The road climbed like crazy. Up, Up, Up. I think they rent bikes with 39-25 gearing just as a prank on the tourists. The variety of trees was great. It kind of reminded me of some time I spent in the south of France, although to be fair this was far wetter, and hence there was lots more growth beneath the trees. The point is though, that there are loads and loads of different species of trees in the forest. That’s a lot different than what I’m used to in Alberta.

Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010
Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010
Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010

After a solid period of climbing through the forest I suddenly broke out of the trees onto a ridge-top where I got to ride across a meadow along the top of the mountains. I think this road is called Seven Sisters. I was riding along it and felt like I’d already seen it somewhere… and then I realized it was featured on a video from Purple-Patch Fitness with the Lieto brothers. The road headed into the clouds… and I stayed in them for about the next hour all the way to the top of the mountain.

Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010
Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010
Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010

I headed back down the mountain to the beach. I hadn’t thawed out from descending through the cloud until I’d reached sea-level so I spent the descent shivering and didn’t barge down this part too hard. I headed back south on Highway 1 for a stretch and then headed back inland to climb through the Muir woods and take in the alternative approach to Mount Tam. This climb got pretty serious at the top and I even felt a bit hot out in the sun. I got nice and sweaty before heading into a rainy patch where the cloud was smooshed up against the mountain and proceeded to get quite cold (as had become the pattern of the day).

Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010

I then scooted back down the mountain, through Sausalito to refill my belly and waterbottles before taking in a final ascent of the on the way back to town, another climb up to the Marin Headlands lookout over the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. The view from the top was spectacular and the skies were blue once again. I met some guys from a road racing club while I ate some food at the summit and they invited me out to do one more climb called the Rodeo Loop. We went right to the end of the road, where it just disappears into nothing, it wasn’t even evident where it used to go. You can only ride like the locals if you ride with the locals.

Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010
Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010
Photo from gallery: Cycling in San Francisco 2010

I had a Giant TCR Alliance rented. It was a very nice bike but had some funny quirks. It really took some effort to keep the back end down, it didn’t seem to be balanced fore-aft quite properly, I’m pretty sure that was a matter of bottom bracket placement with respect to the wheels because it happened in and out of the seat. Vibration damping was excellent and appreciated on parts of the road that were rough and fast, but it wasn’t vertically compliant enough for my liking. Both of my Cervelos do a better job in that regard even though the dual can get a bit of a hum in the frame if you are going 40 kph on it on mediocre pavement. All told, I wouldn’t buy one with my own money, but it was nice to be able to ride one all day and get it all dirty and then just give it to someone else to clean and lube before the next ride.

Note: Some of these images were stolen from Google Earth… which was relied on extensively to make sure this bike ride wasn’t going to be a total disaster. I had a pretty good idea of what things were supposed to “look like” along the way regarding which valleys I should be trying to head up or down, and as a result I spent zero time being lost. Staying not-lost is an important aspect of racking up big miles without getting into a situation where I can’t make it home.

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