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San Francisco is one of North America’s best biking cities thanks to growing bicycle infrastructure, bike-friendly
businesses and transit agencies.
It’s the birthplace of Critical Mass. It’s the home of the fixie-riding hipster (ignore New Yorkers who try to claim that dubious distinction). It’s a tiny, dense city with a huge spectrum of people who realize that cycling from most A points to most B points is simply the fastest, cheapest, quickest way to go – thanks to growing bicycle infrastructure, bike-friendly businesses and transit agencies.
On a single San Francisco day, you can steer your steed through a national park, check out world-class art and science museums, take in a Giants game and connect the dots between neighborhoods as disparate as Chinatown and Haight-Ashbury.
Downtown, “the Ferry Building is a must-see,” said San Franciscan and biking demigod Gary Fisher. “It’s got the farmers market, and inside it’s nothing but local purveyors.” Once you’ve had your fill of organic coffee and grub, Fisher suggests jumping on the ferry to Larkspur. “It’s my favorite town in Marin County, and the ferry ride is beautiful.”
Freed from the isolation of a rental car or taxi, you’ll smell the eucalyptus groves and the salty bay. Back in SF, you’ll see the architecture and culture shift as you ride through neighborhoods. You’ll hear the ornery bark of the sea lions off Pier 39 and the horn-heavy Mexican Banda music blaring from garage parties in the Mission District.
Plus, the city’s buses are outfitted with racks, so if you should peter out, they’re there to save you. But you won’t need them if you know where to ride – and when it comes to that, the key piece of intel is The Wiggle: a flat route that connects Golden Gate Park with the Mission District and bypasses nosebleed-inducing hills.
“There are really flat ways to get through town,” said Fisher. And San Francisco Bicycle Coalition board member Maureen Devlin concurs: “No matter what your level of fitness, you should not feel intimidated to ride in San Francisco.”
When it comes to cycling, Valencia Street gets the lion’s share of attention. The Mission District thoroughfare is blessed with bike lanes, lights timed for smooth bike flow and many pockets of bike corrals for parking. This street is a vortex of coffee shops, bars, shops and parks that will swallow you if you let them.
Don’t. There’s much else to see from your saddle. The Golden Gate Bridge is open to cyclists (be sure to follow signs to the protected bike lane and be prepared for high winds) and that’s a must-do. And if you’re up for it, take the phrase “ride around town” literally on the Butter Lap, a 17-mile (27-kilometer) loop that skirts the edges of town from the Ferry Building into the Presidio and along Ocean Beach before traversing Golden Gate Park and bringing you to Mission. A semi-organized group of locals rides it each Wednesday, meeting at the Ferry Building at 7 p.m. Your pay-off for huffing up a few medium-steep hills? Astounding views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County. Plus, you’ll feel like a local.
If you have small kids in tow or want a more leisurely ride, Golden Gate Park’s main drag, JFK Drive, is closed to cars each Sunday and the first Saturday of each month, which means plenty of space for bikes, trikes and all manner of wheeled and foot-powered visitors.
And if you’re lucky enough to be here during a Sunday Streets event – multi-block parties modeled after the Ciclovía in Bogota, Colombia – you’ll get an inside look at SF’s unique bike culture. A great example: custom low-rider bikes that are statements of art more than viable vehicles. You’ll see bikes bedizened with fur and speakers pumping bass, skateboarders, roller skaters, young riders, old riders and lots of locals reveling in car-free streets. Bonus: Rock the Bike brings its pedal-powered music stage to Sunday Streets.
You might find the urge to explore beyond San Francisco’s 49 square miles (for perspective, Los Angeles is 500 square miles). Not a problem. The subway system (Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART) will take you and your bike (during non-rush hours) to the East Bay (Oakland and Berkeley).
A three-mile loop around Oakland’s Lake Merritt affords a great glimpse of the city’s architecture, including its Art Deco apartment buildings. The lake is also a National Wildlife Refuge, so look out for egrets, herons and geese. And the Oakland Museum of California (museumca.org) offers bike docent-led history tours, as well. You can also while away the hours poking around the University of Berkeley campus and the shops along Telegraph Avenue.
If you’re looking for serious road riding or mountain biking, it doesn’t get much better than the lush, curvy Highway 1 and Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, or the steep, vista-filled hills of the East and South Bay.