Bay City Rollers

by Helen Edwards 

San Francisco... arguably one of the world's iconic cities. Booming tech sector, classic liberal history, world class food, wine, artisan cocktails and the birthplace of mountain biking. Really? The birthplace of mountain biking? Well, close. Over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, sometime in the '80s - yes, we all know the story. Unfortunately it was also the birthplace of all things user-conflict and mountain bikers were banned from much of the primo singletrack. But times they are a changin'...

The Bay Area mountain bike scene has always kept pedalling-on but recently it's started to up its cadence. There are numerous small groups organising and advocating for increased access to singletrack, mobilising volunteers, building the kind of trails that we like to ride and teaching old dogs new tricks - namely how to be polite to other trail users. Yes, we're still behind but catching up fast.

So next time you're considering a trip through the City-by-the-Bay, trade in that trip to Alcatraz for a rental car to the Peninsula, give away that cable car ride and spend a day in the North Bay and instead of walking Fisherman's Wharf, get rid of that jet-lag with some city exploration by bike.

There are some specifics about riding in the Bay Area that we need to cover first: 1. Hazards 2. Weather 3. Why mountain bikers carry so much stuff (related to 1 and 2 above)

Hazards and Remedies

Grumpy trail users of the non-biker type. Google how to say "have a nice day!" in American and practise pulling over to the right. Park Rangers with speed guns. Know the speed limits on the trail you're riding (generally 15mph; 5mph when passing a hiker). Know how to convert from mph to kph. 

Poison Oak. Learn what it looks like so you don't have to learn what it feels like. It's not always easy to ID as it changes throughout the year. The mantra here is 'leaves of three, leave it be' which is pretty good advice. My personal approach is to avoid touching anything. I wear long sleeves and socks in high risk areas and shower with plenty of soap within a few hours of finishing a ride to remove any oil. There's a plethora of info on-line but the bottom line is that once the allergy starts there's not much you can do. Avoidance is best. 

Ticks. Get your head around checking your significant other for ticks. They are highly evolved beasts that burrow deep in your skin, never to be removed. Again, my personal approach is to avoid touching vegetation, brush myself down after a ride and always check, everywhere, within a few hours. If you find a tick, get on Google straight away to figure out the best way to remove it, rather than expose yourself to nasties like lyme disease. If you find one, some doctors recommend saving it for analysis. Check this photo if you need convincing how gross these critters are.

Rattlesnakes and mountain lions. Decide on whether you're one of those types who really, really, really would secretly love to see a rattlesnake or a mountain lion. From experience, rattlesnakes are damn terrifying in 'the flesh' and I most definitely do not wish to see a mountain lion. Remember that a baby rattler is as deadly as an adult.

Weather

There are three types of weather here: wet, dry and marine layer. Generally if it's wet, it's also cold (all the rain is November to April). If it's dry, it's hot (especially inland). If it's marine layer it's damn cold. And wet. The coldest winter I ever had was a summer in San Francisco.

Summer is extreme, which is why bikers carry so much stuff. Depending on the depth of the marine layer, there can be a 15-20°C difference between the top and bottom of a hill, or from one neighbourhood to the next. It's hard to know what to wear or how much water to take. So be prepared for it all - a warm top, a shell and full backpack of water. We've had rides that have started in 9°C and fog, and finished 30°C. The best approach is to check the local micro conditions for relative humidity (100% obviously means FOG), temperature and wind on wundermap.

Winter can be great, but mostly it's not. Conditions on most trails deteriorate significantly with rain. There are only a few places where the riding is okay all year around. The upside is that it gets quiet for us uni-sporters. Everyone else is off skiing at Tahoe.

Autumn is fabulous. Just straight out fabulous.

The Trails

SF City - dealing to jet lag

San Francisco is becoming increasingly bike-friendly. Cycle routes are laid out across the city in East-West and North-South directions and are the best way to navigate through the neighbourhoods. Coffee options are excellent. In Hayes Valley, check out Ritual on Octavia or Blue Bottle on Linden. Four Barrel in Valencia has the coolest bike rack in town. For a pre-ride fuel, stop in at The Mill on Divisadero for a huge slab of the most excellent toast and a great coffee.

The city bike routes connect to some short but fun trails, as well as helping to navigate a longer loop taking in some terrific sights such as Ocean Beach, Sutro Baths, Baker Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge. It's mostly on-road, but a loop we like includes the trails on Sutro Hill. Adolph Sutro was the 24th mayor of San Francisco and he did a lot of crazy things such as building huge Victorian Baths (now only the foundations survive on the edge of the Pacific), buying a zoo and, the most crazy of all, preserving an open hill for the residents. Most generously he covered the hill with eucalyptus. These trees are now huge, making the forest strangely peaceful. There are terrific glimpses out to the city, park, ocean and the GGB. The trails are steep, smooth and short but it's a funway to spend an hour. You'll meet locals walking their dogs and the occasional mountain biker 'scratching the itch' mid-week. During the summer, Sutro is cloaked in fog. It can be quite wet (and cold).

The best entrance is near the intersection of 17th and Stanyan. It is a little tricky to spot - look for the wooden stairway and follow the 'be quiet' and 'pick up your dog's poop' signs. The first section of the trail is steepest. There are a number of trails to create a loop. We prefer travelling clockwise starting at the first intersection. Be careful crossing the road but otherwise just follow your nose up to North Ridge, Mystery, East Ridge, South Ridge and Historic. There are Great Horned Owls and a number of other birds to spot. Poison oak is in abundance near the bottom sections of trail but the undergrowth is mostly just blackberry once you're on UCSF land.

Now that you've worked off some of your own fog, the Ice Cream Bar at 815 Cole is a must-do. Try the butterscotch with toasted pecans and butterscotch sauce. Then go ride Sutro again!

Roll back down Stanyon and take a tour through Golden Gate Park. All trails here are legal and, although basically flat, there'ssome fun to be had. It's a long, gentle downhill to Ocean Beach. Pick up the bike routes and make your way north, through Seacliff and up to the Golden Gate. Head across the GGB (just 'cause) then back along Crissy Field to grab a mexican fix of great tacos from Tacolicious on Chestnut. You can sit outside to keep a watchful eye on your steed. Head back along to Fort Mason, via Fisherman's Wharf and the Embarcadero for the flat route to downtown - or challenge yourself to a final push over Pacific Heights. Any street will do but Fillmore is a good test.

A little further afield... Fairfax, Ross and Marin

The true birthplace. There are a ton of trails, mostly fire roads, in Marin. And there's Mt Tamalpais for a monster climb. Marin Headlands connect to it through a combination of tarmac and fire road to the roads up Mt Tam. Mt Tam is covered in trails. Most are illegal and the rest are fire roads. But its trails survive the winter rain and it's a must for any nostalgic mountain biker to ride Eldridge Grade or Pine Mountain at least once. If driving, the bestentrance to the Tam trail system is at Ross. Park in the town and ride from there.

However, for the most fun, head to Fairfax and Tamarancho. This is a relatively small area with a singletrack perimeter. You will need a day pass (available from local bike shops) or buy on-line. Park in the town of Fairfax (cute and crunchy) and ride from town via Iron Spring Road. You can't miss the start of the loop with The Alchemist. There's only one trail loop, it rides in both directions but clockwise is recommended. It's a fun mix of technical and fast. There are great views and stopping points. It's private land (owned by the boy scouts) and bikers must stay on the singletrack. Allow a couple of hours for this ride. Keep an eye out for Red Tailed hawks, snakes, deer and groovy lizards. Oh, poison oak and ticks are in abundance too.

As part of Tamarancho, local bikers have built a new flow trail called Endor. It's a mile or so of terrific bermed downhill. It's crazy busy on weekends but quiet during the week. When you hit the skills area, go left and up the hill to the true top of Endor. Like them on Facebook and make the community bigger.

Fairfax has any number of eateries. Check to see if the new Mountain Bike Hall of Fame is open, grab a burger at the diner or head to Good Earth Market for a great salad or sandwich and a clean rest room.

Another ride to consider in the North Bay is Annadel State Park. It's about 2 hours north of the city and is probably the most technical riding in the Bay Area. It can be viciously hot in summer and crowded with walkers, but the riding is great.

Pedal on.

Nitty Gritty

  • Maps: Mt Sutro, SF city bike routes,Tamarancho and Mt Tam
  • My go-to place for trail maps and descriptions is Bay Area Rides. Start with his Tamarancho page and advance there. His directions and descriptions are always well articulated, up to date and accurate and it'sthe best resource for planning a day in more detail. 
  • If you need to hire a bike, call Darcy at Pacific Bikes and ask about their demo range. He'll get you sorted on a Santa Cruz or Juliana or similar that's new and well-spec'd.
  • Accommodation in SF is generally expensive or pretty low-end, sometimes both. There are numerous downtown hotels (Hotel Diva we'd rate as the best for hip, mid range), a ton of motel-type places (recommend the Day's Inn in Hayes Valley, free parking and clean) and contemporary options like AirBNB and Home Away

Helen Edwards: I'm an ex-pat Wellingtonian now living in San Francisco. I've ridden mountain bikes for 21 years and, while I don't ride some of the stuff I used to, I'm probably fitter than when I was 20 and I'm enjoying it more than ever. My husband, Dave, and I spend most days either riding or trying to get out for a ride.