Saturday, 18 July 2009

A Flatlander Cycles in San Francisco

I received this e-mail a while back from my friend, a prairie boy, presently living in Victoria.

(ring ring) I like the bell. These straight bars are going to be a bit of a pain, and I'm sitting up higher than I want to, but as rentals go I could do a lot worse. This is the monologue that ran through my head as I pulled away from the Blazing Saddles bike rental kiosk at Pier 39 in San Francisco. "Blazing saddles" huh? The way I feel now, after seven hours on that bike the seat might as well have been on fire.

This morning I left at seven. I walked the length of the Embarkadero. I had a cup of coffee at Pier 39. I rented a bike at Blazing Saddles, and set out to see as much of San Francisco as my legs would allow in a single day. (Oooooooow! We interupt this e-mail to bring you the cramp you knew was coming... dummy.) Back to my story. The bike was what they call a hybrid. It had narrow tires like a road bike, but they were knobby on the sides to handle a little gravel. The seat was cushy (for a while). The handlebars were straight like a mountain bike, and it had a bell. I liked the bell. I liked it so much I rang it at everyone I passed as I peddled toward the Presideo, and beyond to the Golden Gate Bridge. I rang it at people walking, I rang it at people cycling. I rang it at this old guy doing tai chi. I rode along ringing my bell with a big goofy grin on my face knowing that the little Canadian flag on my backpack would protect me from scorn. People would just think, "Oh, he's Canadian. They're so polite." I passed the aquatic park where people swim in the ocean in the shadow of Frisco's great span. I'd grown tired of my bell by then so I didn't ring it at the swimmers. But I rang it at a woman walking her dog. Dirty look. No more ringing the bell.

The approach to the golden gate bridge is a pretty good climb. It's got to be about a hundred metres vertical from the Presideo to the bridge. It was hard work, but as I crested the top I was feeling very confident. I had conquered the climb to the bridge, and nothing would be nearly as challenging as that. The rest of the day would be a nice light cruise on this reasonably comfortable contraption. Store that away for later, as always I will refer back to it later in my story.

The bridge is amazing. It's impossible to take it all in except at a distance, and when you're on it, it makes you feel a little insignificant. In the morning I couldn't see the city from the bridge because of the fog. I could barely see the water. It was like flying above the clouds in an airplane. The bridge has it's own fog signals. They're a deep base horn, and they seem to make the whole bridge resonate. There are call boxes at regular intervals. They have blue plastic placards with a message written in a soothing font. "Crisis line. You're not alone, we can help you." I don't imagine they were in the original design. People were having they're pictures taken beside the call boxes. We are a morbid society.

On the north side of the bridge is Sausalito. It's a little like Victoria, except it has palm trees. I mean it has more palm trees. There are more trendy coffee shops than any other kind of business, and the most common car is made by BMW. I'm passed by about a hundred cyclists on my way into town. They all ride road bikes, and sport team racing outfits like you'd expect to see in the Tour-de-France. I see one at the side of the road. He's gone down. He has a tire in hand, and a line of snot connecting his face to the pump in his other hand. He's about seventy. I stop and ask him if he's alright, if he needs help. He smiles and lets out a little laugh, "No, no." he says in his French-Californian accent. "This too is part of the game. Thank you." I roll past.

As I enter Sausalito I remember reading about the Open Water Rowing Club. It's located on Liberty Ship Road. They rent shells out to visitors and casual users. I decide to try and locate them, and maybe take out a single. I stop at one of the prolific cafes and ask a trio of team racing outfits if they know of the club. One is Swiss. He knows where it is. Another is Italian, and he knows of another. So far everyone I've spoken to in Sausalito is European, belongs on a cycling team, and knows where a rowing club is. Well, that's not quite right. The French guy might have known where a rowing club was, but I hadn't thought to ask him. I follow the Swiss directions hoping I can identify the turn in the road he said would be obvious. I find it, and roll to a stop outside the Open Water Rowing Club on Liberty Ship Road.

I didn't get to row. I did get an invite back the next time I was in town. Had I called them just the day before i could have gone out with one of their crews, but as it was they were done for the day, and heading for an out-of-town regatta on Sunday. I chatted with the coach (whose name now escapes me), and said I would call ahead next time. Everyone is so friendly here.

Next stop, Mill Valley. Mill Valley is another small town, populated mostly by trendy coffee shops, and team racing outfits. It's also the place I made my mistake. I had taken along a map, provided by Blazing Saddles, with suggested routes, and approximate distances. Conspicuously absent was any indication of elevation. Anyway, the map had little bubbles indicating local attractions, on of which was Muir Woods. Muir Woods is a lot like Cathedral Grove. It's a stand of giant redwoods that have been preserved by making them a National Monument. The Mill Valley Grocery store is like something out of a Rockwell painting. There's fresh fruit lining the outside of the store, and what I take to be the manager is sitting in a chair by the door, white apron on, greeting customers. I roll up in front of him, and ask for directions. "Why?" This was his answer to, "How do I get to Muir Woods?" "Why? Why do you want directions to Muir Woods?" He realized i was confused by his reservation, and explained. "You know, it's quite a ride." I explained that I had already come from Pier 39, accross the Golden Gate, through Sausalito to meet him there in front of his store in Mill Valley. Muir Woods was just another 4 miles up the road... straight up. He was trying to tell me that the special kind of Hell I was biting off for myself was something that a guy on a Blazing Saddles rental bike should not be attempting, bell or no bell. I wouldn't listen. I had climbed the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge without even slipping into granny-gear (the lowest gear available). Surely I could make it up some hill between me and my giant redwoods. He sighed and reluctantly wrote out a set of very clear directions.

I don't remember the name of the mountain. It was Latin-American, but it just doesn't come to mind. It had an elevation of about a thousand metres. I might be way off, but I'll never know given that there were no elevations on my little map. (ring, ring) I rang my bell at the steep incline trying to prevent me from coming face to face with the world's tallest living things. It seemed to help. It made me smile. The pain that had settled in my hamstrings seemed to fade. (ring, ring) I was moving faster. (ring, ring) Whenever my mind started to tell me to turn around and go back down I rang my bell. At the top I surveyed the entire Bay area. San Francisco was like a model on the bookshelf, and Sausalito barely visible. Where were the trees? Oh. I had to go down the other side. I considered the possibilities. I could get to Muir Woods, and find out that I had a very delightful little ride out some back way that would end at the Golden Gate Bridge, returning me to San Francisco. I stopped considering possibilities. I had beaten the hardest climb I had ever undertaken on a bike. Surely I was up to this.

Turns out Mill Valley isn't at sea level. In fact I had been gradually climbing the whole way there, before my ill considered ride to the top of ______ Mountain. As a result the other side was quite a bit longer. I stopped at Muir Woods, and locked up my silver steed. I paid the three-dollar entrance fee. I was disappointed. They're tall. They have nothing on our Sitka Spruce for pure majesty. No need to go to California, just zip up the road to Port Renfrew, or Tofino. After pooh-poohing the silent giants I remounted my Blazing Saddle, and continued on down the mountain to Muir Beach. I had it in my head to rent a surfboard, and hang-ten in California the way I had in Waikiki. No such luck. No surf. I road on. I've never faced a greater physical challenge than that hill. The ride up from Muir Beach put me at odds with every muscle fibre in my body. It was excruciating, and it wouldn't end. The road twisted and turned, and at every new corner I would tell myself, "just around the next bend is the top" before another bend would appear. I can run a marathon. I can do it next week if I want to. I've done a half. This hill was at least five times more demanding. It was a two-hour climb.

I had to walk the last four blocks to return my bike to the Blazing Saddles rental kiosk. I thought about stealing the bell. I thought about how I would recommend elevations be included on their maps. I thought about how my ass was never going to recover. The woman at the kiosk took out a marker when I told her where I had been. She traced the route on a map on the counter, counted, laughed. It had been quite a day.

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