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San Francisco: Big Ride

Stu Bowers
2 Feb 2016

With spectacular mountain roads and coastal views, it's hard to believe this ride is just a short hop from the bustle of San Francisco.

Type ‘San Francisco’ into Google and the first 100 images you’ll get back will be of the Golden Gate Bridge. With its distinctive orange vermillion colouring, the suspension bridge spans the mile-wide Golden Gate strait that separates San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. One of the best vantage points to see and photograph this impressive structure is undoubtedly up on the high point of Hawk Hill, which looms on the southern peninsula of the Marin Headlands. 

That’s precisely where we are now, sitting astride our top tubes and checking out the view. I’m certain I could never get bored of it, even if I rode here every day. The cars look like ants, crawling back and forth across the bridge, and in the distance is Alcatraz, the notorious island prison that once incarcerated the likes of Al Capone and was until 1963 America’s premier maximum-security penitentiary. This perspective also offers a pleasant take on the city itself, the distance softening the impact of its high-rise buildings jutting up like stalagmites and giving it the appearance of a Lego town.  

Bullitt from a gun

San Francisco steep road

Half an hour earlier, someone standing at this same point might have just been able to make out me and my riding partner Paul heading along the purpose-built cycle lane that allows the safe passage for bikes across the bridge, away from the bustling six-lane highway. They would have seen us turn left just beyond the end of the bridge and make the not insignificant climb up Slacker Hill (its name entirely appropriate in the circumstances as we had just had a large breakfast and were in no real hurry) to deliver us to this purpose-built viewpoint for vehicles to pull in and gaze. 

It’s early April and the temperature is nestled pleasantly in the early 20s, with no sign of the morning fog that San Francisco is renowned for. Today the sky is typically Californian – blue and cloudless – and is the perfect backdrop for what promises to be an incredibly beautiful ride. It would be easy to think this early visual extravaganza was to be the highlight of the day, but
it’s just one of many we are anticipating over the next 100km or so, as we venture deeper into Marin County’s bike riding delights. 

We’d started out the only way a San Francisco ride really should, with a quick spin through those famously steep streets, the setting for the Steve McQueen car chase in the movie Bullitt, followed by a proper American diner breakfast. Bottomless cups of coffee and a stack of pancakes topped with bacon and drizzled in maple syrup might sound like a soon-to-be-regretted indigestion fest, but Paul and I knew we’d be enjoying most of the first 10km in a very leisurely manner, ambling along the cycleway that follows the water’s edge around the Marina District before delivering us to the bridge and the climb up to the viewpoint. 

San Francisco bay road

By the time we have had our fill of the view, our calorific breakfast has had just enough chance to settle, so we turn the bikes around and begin this ride in earnest. 

We’re immediately in for a treat, as no sooner do we round the corner of the headland than the road in front of us descends steeply, winding its way sinuously along the coastline. With sandy coves, rugged rocky outcrops and the lighthouse on the end of the peninsula now in view it already feels a far cry from the metropolis we’ve just left behind. What’s more it’s a one-way road so we don’t have to worry about oncoming traffic. We are free to use all of the available tarmac to plunge through a succession of bends that has us grinning from ear to ear. Just as the descent runs out we pass a row of concrete bunkers that are a historic reminder of the military settlements and fortifications built here as a means to defend the entrance to the San Francisco Bay during times of war. 

We loop around the headland on the aptly named Bunker Road, popping out via a tunnel close to where we had exited the bridge earlier, but now we turn and go under the highway to continue our passage further north, along the edge of the bay, first through Sausalito and then on to Mill Valley. The busy highway, now a distance off to our left and full of this morning’s commuters, is of no concern to us. The cycle lanes here are superb, and we can follow these routes in relative peace for much of this early part of the ride. The day is warming up nicely too. ‘If the sun is shining and I can smell eucalyptus then I know I’m in for a great day,’ Paul says, referring to the subtle aroma as we pass under trees shading us from the sun’s rays. I’m inclined to agree.

San Francisco coffee

With only around 35km covered it’s a little early for a coffee stop, but Paul (who despite being from Dorset in the UK, is a regular visitor to these parts) insists I experience Equator Coffee in Mill Valley. It’s a local business that as well as pouring some superb flat whites also sponsors a local cycling team. It has a cycling-friendly vibe and several people stop to strike up a conversation about our bikes leant against the post outside. In any case, we’re about to go off the beaten track and into the wilderness for the next 20km, so topping up our reserves (and water bottles) now is probably a good idea. We decide a slice of cake won’t do us any harm either.

Good wood

Both fully fuelled and caffeinated we navigate our way through pretty residential streets out of downtown Mill Valley until we reach the end of the road. For most of the next 20km we’ll be riding on gravel, joining the Old Railroad Grade Trail that will be our passage into the Tamalpais State Park, and eventually up the east side of Mount Tamalpais. Giant redwoods reach skywards from the many narrow wooded canyons, and Paul and I make our way, somewhat gingerly in the early stages, trying to pick the best lines through the loose stony surface, hindered slightly by the dappled sunlight that’s sparkling on the ground. 

San Francisco gravel rides

Gravel riding is all the rage right now, particularly here in California, and while the industry has jumped on the opportunity to create a whole new sector of specific bikes, Paul and I haven’t changed from our standard road machines, although I’ve taken the liberty of using slightly wider 25mm tubeless tyres on my Orbea. Paul seems content on his 23mm tyres, and the speed of our progress ramps up in line with our enjoyment levels as we gradually snake our way up the easy pitch of this most picturesque of trails. The clue as to why its gradient is shallow is in its name. The trail follows the route originally carved out for the Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway, which opened in 1896 and achieved fame as the windiest railroad in the world. Alpe d’Huez’s 21 bends might be more famous but you can enjoy a total of 281 bends on this gravel climb. There’s one section that back when it was a railway line was a unique feat of engineering. It’s known as the ‘double bowknot’ where the track runs parallel to itself no less than five times to gain elevation within a very small patch on the mountain. By train that would have certainly been a unique experience, but by road bike the quick succession of switchbacks just adds another appealing element to the climb. 

At a little over halfway we stop briefly at the West Point Inn, the only surviving structure of the railway. It’s a fine spot to take a break, re-energise and savour the far-reaching views. San Francisco, the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge are now on the far horizon, revealing the distance we’ve already covered, but the Railroad Grade isn’t finished with us yet. The next few kilometres are arguably among the best, as the trail gets a little trickier, but at the same time the height gain takes us beyond the forest line and rewards us with even more exhilarating views back out over the bay. 

San Francisco forest track

When we eventually arrive at the summit of the East Peak, the highest point of Mount Tamalpais at just under 800m above sea level, Paul and I agree that the path less travelled (at least as far as road bikes are concerned) was a far more rewarding trip to the top than taking the more conventional road route up East Ridgecrest Boulevard. It’s further proof, if any were needed, that road bikes are more capable of taking you off the beaten track than they’re credited with. We’ve got here without a single puncture or hitch between us. Who needs a gravel bike?

Lucky seven

We begin to descend Ridgecrest Boulevard on what locals call the ‘Seven Sisters’ (or, so we’re told, ‘Seven Bitches’ if you’re riding it in the opposite direction), which I can honestly say is one of the best stretches of road I’ve ridden. 

San Francisco twisty road

The road is frequently used for car commercials, and it’s easy to see the attraction. It twists, turns, rises and falls, all against the backdrop of Marin County’s Pacific coastline and the impressively formed sandbar that is Stinson Beach. The fun is relentless, with just a few repeated short bursts of pedalling to maintain speed, interspersed with aero tucks to enjoy it to the full. We lose height fast and soon dip below the tree line and back into the redwood forest once again, but the descent keeps on giving. The switchbacks down Bolinas Fairfax Road (BoFax to locals) are set out like a racetrack, and other than keeping an eye out for odd patches of loose gravel and rocks that have dropped onto the road, the corners are mostly cambered in our favour to ramp up the enjoyment of railing through the apexes. 

It’s a thrilling descent and as I get near the bottom a car coming the other way stops in the road. ‘Hey man, you want a hit?’ the passenger shouts, his body halfway out of the side window and proffering me a huge joint. With a flood of adrenaline coursing through my veins from the descent, I’m already enjoying my own legal rush, so all we exchange is a simple high-five as I slow to pass. 

‘Have a great ride man,’ the passenger shouts after me as the car accelerates away up the road. The offer may be a first for a Cyclist ride, but as it turns out it’s perhaps not so uncommon in these parts. Marijuana is legal here for ‘medical purposes’, which Luc, a friend of Paul’s and an addict of a different kind (local Strava junkie), later tells me, basically means you just need to tell a doctor you’re having trouble sleeping.

San Francisco tunnel

We now find ourselves on a very well known route. Highway 1 runs the length of California’s Pacific coast and is a popular addition to the bucket list of tourists and travellers who come here. Today there’s very little traffic at all as we pedal alongside the beautiful, shimmering Bolinas Lagoon, enjoying the fresh breeze coming off the coast, cooling our sweat-dampened skin. 

From our vantage point up on Ridgecrest Boulevard earlier in the ride we were looking down on Stinson Beach’s long stretch of golden sand, which is now right in front of us. Despite the big breakfast and cake stop earlier, I’m getting hungry so we pull up at the local store in Stinson Beach. In California it’s still possible to buy the original glass bottled Coca-Cola made with cane sugar, not the more common version with high-fructose corn syrup. It’s something else that Paul is keen for me to experience. Sure enough, it’s an appreciably tastier flavour, but right now the fact it’s ice cold from the fridge is what makes it feels like the most heavenly refreshment. 

Continuing on Highway 1 we soon leave the beach behind although the shoreline will remain in view over our right shoulders for some time yet. We gain height gradually, with occasional steps up to around 10%, as we make our way up towards the ridgeline again. At the top, whiffs of sun-baked eucalyptus fill the air once more and we tip over to begin the decent towards Muir Beach, which marks the end of our time on Highway 1. 

San Francisco beers

We’re heading inland to the final climb of the day, up Muir Woods Road, which will deliver us to the final high point, the aptly named Panoramic Highway. It’s a last chance to savour the views from above before we shoot rapidly down what proves to be yet another superb descent. It’s a little more residential than we’ve been used to for the past few hours, but the wide strip of really smooth black tarmac, with a flurry of alternate sweeping curves, is recipe enough for enjoyment. 

As our surroundings become more densely populated it’s a sign that we’re almost at the point Paul has been waiting for. We return to Mill Valley, which means we only have a short trip back through Sausalito and across the Golden Gate Bridge still to ride. A little indulgence at this point won’t do us any harm, so Paul insists that we make a stop at Joe’s Taco Lounge on Miller Avenue. They are, he reliably informs me, the best tacos I will ever eat. 

All that’s left is to head back over the Golden Gate Bridge and experience those views across the bay for a second time. If only all rides could end like this. 

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