Thursday, June 16, 2011


I just rolled over 3000 miles on my cyclocomputer's odometer. As far as milestones go, that's one of the more meaningless ones I have. It's less than the number of miles I've put in since I started cycling again as an adult. It's more than the number of miles ridden since I started working in San Francisco, when my riding habits changed drastically (going from a 7.5-mile commute for about 10 months a year to a 1.2-mile commute for about 12 months a year). It's far more than the miles I've ridden since I moved closer to the city, when my riding habits changed drastically yet again (starting a commute of a bit over 17 miles, which I'll probably only be able to do for about 6 months or so of the year; plus scattered weekend rides for most dry weekends throughout the year). I didn't think to make a record of any of those significant milestones, so all that the 3000 means is the number of miles I've ridden since my previous bike was stolen in December 2007.

I'm loving the rides, though. The possibility of a nicely long cycling commute was in the back of my mind while I was looking for my new place; I wasn't sure if I'd pursue it, but wanted to be close enough to the city for it to be an option. After I moved in in late September, the days were short enough that I didn't want to risk pedaling on unfamiliar roads, so I just did the public transit thing. My only bike outings during the winter months were on weekends. For a while, I was pursuing the dream of riding up to the top of Sweeney Ridge, where I would lock up my bike and then switch to foot for a short downhill hike to Mori Point. It was a good plan with just one flaw: the hills here are insanely steep, and I had practically no experience riding up hills. (I did occasionally ride up to Guadalupe Reservoir from my place in San Jose, but I always pooped out when I tried to go farther up Hicks to Mt. Umunhum.) I played around with Google Maps' new Bicycling layer to try and find better grades, and experimented with a variety of approaches. Eventually, I found an approach that mostly worked, and let me get almost halfway up Sneath Lane Trail before I had to call it quits.

I then moved on to a more realistic goal: riding south instead of north. In my various searches I've come across a variety of really useful local resources, including the aforementioned Google Maps, but also SFBC's own SF Bike Mapper (which performs a similar function but has the advantage of local knowledge, and adds the ability to customize routes based on tolerance for hills); official bike maps from San Mateo County and several cities; and several local riders' groups. Hands-down, the best resource I've found yet for recreational rides is Velo Girls. They have a large collection of great, clearly described rides, which are sorted by distance and difficulty. With any other resource, I never know before going whether the route will be feasible, but with Velo Girls, it's always been great.

Over a couple of months, I've been slowly increasing the size of my loops for Saturday morning rides. (I'm not out every week, but it's increasingly taking the place of my traditional Saturday morning hikes - more on that later.) The first good, successful ride I had was a route that had me head south through Burlingame along flat roads (mostly on or around California); then take a nicely graded climb up Crystal Springs Road through Hillsborough; then a short steep climb up the top of Crystal Springs to the intersection with Skyline (35), where I pick up the Sawyer Camp Trail. This is a very pleasant paved multi-use trail with runners, walkers, and occasional cyclists; it runs for exactly six miles, mostly along two very pretty reservoirs, with no intersections. After exiting at the north end, I can take my revenge on the steep hills as I make my way back down home.

I did that loop for a few times, and each attempt felt great. I next extended it with another Velo Girls route through Woodside. This provided my first exposure to Canada Road, which is legendary among local cyclists as one of the best possible roads in the area. The pavement is excellent; it's set in an inner valley high up the Santa Cruz range, so even though it's close to 280 you rarely see or hear the traffic; the route passes through pleasant forest and near lower Crystal Springs Reservoir; you can ride for about six miles without hitting a single stop sign or traffic light; and perhaps best of all, it's completely closed to auto traffic on Sunday, and gets very little auto traffic on Saturday (mostly SUVs with loaded bike racks). Plus, since Canada connects Woodside with Skyline, it's a great connector for most longer rides.

Now, cyclists in the area are currently undergoing a bit of a purgatory. A multi-year construction project is closing a section of Skyline, which is how most recreational riders prefer to go up and down the peninsula. For cars, this closure isn't a big deal; they just head a little east and pick up 280. For cyclists, though, they need to ride (steeply) down Crystal Springs; then (steeply) up Polhemus; them (steeply) both down AND up a bike path with horrible pavement that takes them over 92 to Canada. There's been some grumbling online - many road riders would be much happier if they could just get on 280 and ride on the shoulder, like they currently do between Trousdale and Millbrae; and at a minimum, they really should have repaved that awful cracked pavement - but most people have adjusted.

Anyways. My next, longer journeys started going through Canada and then hitting Woodside. Woodside is also a mecca for cyclists, but not everyone is pleased with that; unlike Canada, there are people and cars in Woodside, and there's periodic tension over how people are using the roads. The most visible manifestation of this is Woodside police's aggressive ticketing of cyclists who fail to observe traffic signs. I'm actually fine with this - as the only cyclist in San Francisco who stops at stop signs, I'm hoping that it encourages more riders to follow the rules of the road - but it does sour some of what could be a great cycling atmosphere.

The actual riding in Woodside is great, though. My first rides did a loop up a short part of Kings Mountain, then over Tripp and back down on Woodside. As I did more trips, I eventually stretched that out to a (Velo Girls-directed) double loop: up Mountain Home, over on Tripp, pick up Woodside uphill, left on Portola, down Mountain Home to downtown Woodside, then Woodside and Whiskey Hill east out of town, a nice climb up Sand Hill Road, pick up Portola, then descent on Woodside back to downtown again before taking Canada back out of town. For all these loops, I retrace my steps to Crystal Springs, then pick up Sawyer Camp for a pleasant and scenic end to my ride.

One of the resources I'd found while looking up local bike routes is the Tour de Peninsula, an annual fundraiser ride. I haven't ridden it before, but decided I wanted to try it this year. They have a set of ride lengths that you can choose from, ranging from a 20-mile route that's mostly in the flatlands, all the way up to a metric century with epic climbs. I want to see if I can do that metric century. They have two variations on that: the real one, and a 50-mile shortcut version that they call "Simon Says". Well, on my last two rides, I've been trying the Simon Says route. It's tough, definitely the toughest ride I've taken yet, but I'm very pleased to have finished it intact both times. Since I start from farther north, and do an extra loop through Woodside, it ends up being a bit over 60 miles and (according to Google My Tracks) about 6000 feet of climbing. Most of that comes from climbing ALL the way to the top of Kings Mountain Road, all the way to Skyline. It's... difficult. I've been in my lowest gear both times, and have gotten used to more experienced cyclists passing me. Once I get to Skyline, though... well, there's a bit more climbing, but THEN you get to go through this amazing, incredibly fast descent. I rarely take the lane, but I feel totally comfortable doing so here, since I'm usually going over 30. There are just enough flat portions for me to be able to gape at the awesome scenery: it's one of the most panoramic views of the San Francisco bay that I've seen yet, and I feel like I've earned it.

One downside of riding up that high is the weather. On all of my rides, I always check the weather report before leaving home, both at my origin and destination. I abort if there's a reasonable risk of precipitation. For these rides, I always look up Woodside, and see that the weather's supposed to be awesome. Well, yeah, it IS awesome in downtown Woodside, but it's a whole different story when you're 2300 feet up at the peak. On my first outing I actually ran into some patches of rain (!) near the top. On my SECOND outing, it was raining CONSTANTLY from about a mile before the peak, through about half of Skyline. I wasn't exactly prepared for that, although it all worked out fine - when you're riding hard, shorts are fine even when it's chilly out.

Anyways: the descent on Skyline takes you to 84 and Alice's Restaurant, a Woodside institution cum motorcycle hangout. The metric century route has you stick on 35, then descend down Old La Honda Road back to 84, which you climb again back to Skyline. I'm not quite that confident yet, so I've been taking the shortcut here, just cutting out that loop and instead jumping on the (long, steep, fast, fun) descent down 84. Once I feel better about this route, I'll add in the loop. It's fun to do a dry run of an event before you participate, ja?

So, that's been my recreational riding. On the, uh, business front, an unusually wet spring had delayed my planned switch from transit to cycling, but I'm finally in the saddle and riding nearly every day for my commute. I'd spent a few Saturdays over the winter experimenting with a few possibilities for the ride, and have done some minor tweaking in the last month or so too. I'm pretty happy with where I've ended up.

The very first ride I tried was mostly based on a Google Maps bicycling direction suggestion, and it was... not great. It had me riding through downtown San Bruno and South San Francisco, mostly on Airport Boulevard. This is exactly the sort of thing that a computer algorithm would think is a GREAT idea: Airport Boulevard has a bike lane! We like bike lanes, right? And it's a direct route to the city! What's not to like?

Well... I went on an early Saturday morning for my test ride, so it wasn't too bad, but I wouldn't dream of riding this in rush hour. Traffic is signed at 35 miles an hour, but moves faster. Worst of all, though, is that traffic from the 101 freeway merges onto the road - as in a normal freeway merge, not a signaled intersection. Now, given that they are merging traffic from the right, through a bike lane, into the main flow of traffic, they designed this as well as they could. The bike lane is painted a separate color (I think red), and is visibly dashed at the point where it crosses the incoming traffic, plus I'm sure there's signage on the ramp. Still, though... that's just a bad situation.

Oddly enough, I found my salvation from Google's misdirection from, well, Google. is another nifty resource, created by Googlers who live in the Mission and ride their bikes down to work in Mountain View. Their route doesn't exactly work for me, since I start out on the wrong side of 101, but it was a great inspiration for a more Bay-centric approach to the route. I took a look at their map, then spent some time in Google Maps manually adjusting the bike route to what I wanted. I've come to think that this is the best way to use the bicycling directions tool. For any decently long ride, they never come up with what I would do, but they still have good data and some generally good algorithms, so with a bit of tweaking ("No, don't go on this road, use this other road instead"), I can build something that I'm happy with.

So, that made me far more confident about making this thing actually work. Once I got over to east of 101, stuff just fell into place. I ended up sticking with the Class 1 trails that follow the contours of the Bay, rather than the canonical sf2b Bayway, which prefers to take city streets like Gateway. Their way is faster and shorter; mine is much more pleasant and completely avoids traffic lights. This gets me through north San Bruno, all of South San Francisco, and across the Brisbane border. From here, a set of three pretty good roads take me into the city proper. Sierra Point Parkway has a great, wide shoulder; and, since it's only a few feet away from 101 and has absolutely no homes, businesses, or services, it gets very little traffic. Lagoon is a nice and short connector. Tunnel Avenue has no shoulder and could stand to be repaved, but since it's pretty much the only way in or out of the eastern half of San Francisco when riding a bike, drivers are very accustomed to dealing with us.

The last nut to crack was how to get to the office from the border. San Francisco, while politically a cycling-friendly city, will always present challenges from its geography: lots of hills, with few flat stretches, many of which have already been claimed for other purposes. I figured out that once I got north of Cesar Chavez, the last few miles to the office were easy; it was just that stretch in the southeast quadrant of the city that I had to deal with. My first attempt took Bay Shore Boulevard almost all the way in. That fell into the category of "This wasn't TOO scary on this Saturday Morning, but I do not want to do this in real traffic." I tried Third Street, which has a bike lane, but also way too much traffic, too many signals, too many driveways, and too many parallel parking cars merging in and out. Oh, and Muni loves hanging out on top of the bike lane, too. I then took a shot at SF Bike Mapper's suggestion for a less hilly route, which followed a convoluted series of turns around Candlestick Park and through Hunter's Point. I was surprised to see that they did, in fact, find a route with almost no climbing at all; however, I felt nervous about including that much Hunter's Point in a daily route, plus it went so far east that it added some significant extra time to the trip.

What I've settled on now is another slightly complicated but fundamentally good route. After emerging from Tunnel, I merge onto Bay Shore Boulevard but only follow it to the first light. Here, I cross Bay Shore with a walk signal, and then - drum roll please - carry my bike UP A FLIGHT OF STAIRS (have I mentioned lately that I LOVE San Francisco?) to the top of the hill on San Bruno Avenue. From here, it's pretty much all downhill to my office, which is great. There are a few places where you can cut over from San Bruno Avenue to Bay Shore; I've come to prefer Bacon as my crossing point for the northbound commute. I stick on Bay Shore for just a bit longer (eating my lane for a few signals), then turn right on Industrial, and follow a set of side streets to roughly parallel Bay Shore northward to Cesar Chavez. Here, a pedestrian/bicyclist path weaves you through the Cesar Chavez / Bay Shore / Potrero / 101 interchange madness, eventually depositing you safely on the north side. From here, well, you can do whatever you want. Personally, I take a pleasant slow ride up Hampshire (again, I'm the only cyclist in San Francisco who stops at stop signs) to 17th Street, which I take over to Folsom, which takes me to my office.

The return trip is just a little different, due to the vagaries of one-way streets. Here, I take Kansas down to 17th for the trip back south. Other than that, it's exactly the same as the route up, except that I usually wait until Paul Avenue to return from Bay Shore back to San Bruno Avenue. Oh, and I ride San Bruno Avenue all the way down to Bay Shore instead of taking the stairs. You need to press the crossing light button to get across Bay Shore from this intersection, no left turns are allowed.

That's the route I've been riding for the last few months, at least when it's dry out, and I've been happy with it. I've made a few small tweaks along the way from the original. I've found a few spots along the bayside trail where I can cut a loop short by crossing a road. I've also discovered an un-mapped spur trail that lets you bypass the 380/101 ramps near the airport. Other than that, I don't see a whole lot of room for improvement.

I did experiment once with a Skyline-based commute home. This wouldn't work for the trip in to work, but the basic idea would be to exit the city to the southwest, pick up 35, and ride that back up to my town, followed by a fun fast descent home. I'd been surprised to note that the route, even though it swings much farther west than my current route swings east, would only add a few miles to the total distance. In the end, though, it wasn't worth adding to my rotation. It takes a LONG time to work your way through San Francisco and Daly City using surface streets, and once you do get on 35, you're only on it for a few miles before exiting. I'll stick to the bay for my weekdays and save the hills for the weekend.

It has been kind of fun to note the ways my environment affects my riding. I don't think I'm getting any faster or stronger at riding, but I do notice significant differences in my performance from day to day, which is mostly driven by the wind. It seems like, at least at this time of year, the morning usually has gentle winds out of the north, so I'm mostly riding into the wind for that leg but it usually isn't strong enough to affect me. By the time I head home, the wind has shifted to the west, and usually has gotten much stronger. Since it hits me crosswise, it doesn't have a huge impact on most of my journey, but there are a few sections where I am riding due west or due east, and I definitely feel it on those days! I try to remind myself, when I'm straining hard and only managing 10 mph, that I get bonus points for riding into 30 mph winds.

So, yeah, I'm riding a lot and loving it. It's really easy to do right now, at the peak of summer, when the days are incredibly long: even if I get caught late at work, I still can usually make it home in daylight. If I'm able to keep up my cycling, it'll be interesting to see if and how it continues in the fall. I'd like to do something similar to what I did at Rocket Mobile, where I adjusted my work schedule to match the day; there, I would often leave home around 6, start work around 7, and leave around 4, which let me ride in decent light even in December. The main hitch now is that my rides are quite a bit longer; on the days with the worst wind, it takes me about 1:20 or so of riding time, and around 1:30 of clock time, as opposed to the 35-40 minutes it took me at Rocket. So, I may try to supplement shorter days at work with a few hours of working from home before or after; or I may switch to just riding in one direction, and taking transit in the other. (And, of course, once the rain starts again this all becomes moot, as I'll happily give up my bike whenever it's wet out.)

I've also been kicking around the perennial question of whether or not to upgrade my bike. I've been extremely happy with my Sirrus, and it's pretty perfect for my commute ride, which combines some nice long stretches of pavement with some bumpy city streets. But, now that I've started doing more and longer weekend rides, I'm finding that my hands get pretty numb after I've been riding for a few hours. I'm pretty sure that this is at least partly of my upright handlebars. I love them for city riding, and they're fine for everything else, but it does mean that I'm maintaining the exact same posture for pretty much the entire ride, regardless of what I'm doing: arms straight out, tilted down, hands wrapped around bars. I think doing dropped handlebars might help with that; but, I'm a bit concerned that I'd be sacrificing some ride comfort, which might take away from the advantage of the bars. Plus, it seems a bit silly to spend a lot of money on a really fast bike, when I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in racing, and don't even really care about how fast I go (I keep track, but just because I'm a data nerd, not out of any sort of competitiveness). And I don't think I could justify having a "commute bike" for the week and a road bike for the weekend. Eh. We'll see how it goes.

Oh, yeah, and back to that 3000: for the record, my odometer rolled over as I was approaching Belle Aire Road from S Airport Boulevard on my ride in to work on Tuesday, June 14th, 2011. A meaningless milestone, but since I've been so bad at keeping track of milestones, at least it'll give me one data point to track. Here's looking forward to 4000!


  1. Hey man, 3000 is pretty damned impressive. That's like riding from your place to Nova Scotia or Nicaragua.

  2. 1 - I am eager to ride with you on your turf!
    2 - you will totally beat me up on the hills.
    3 - if you let yourself even think about getting a second bike, you will get a second bike. It is just a matter of time.