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Gone West: 6 Things I’ve Learned Bike Riding in San Francisco

I ride 10 miles through San Francisco for work everyday (plus 8mi in Fremont, but that’s another post). Here are some key things I’ve learned in my first full month of riding in the city.

My vehicle and companion. A Sirrus by Specialized.

1. Cadence first, Speed second.

It’s a bit embarrassing to get passed by 50-something’s when you’re pedaling the best you can, but you have to fight the urge to shift gears and speed up. Over longer distances, you want to find a sustainable cadence of rotations per minute (RPMs) that keeps you moving, but doesn’t wear you out. Constantly speeding up and slowing down will tire you out and any gains you make early will be lost later in the ride.

I learned this on my ride home. The first couple of days, I kept trying to keep up with other riders and found myself flagging as I got into the last leg of my ride. If you focus on cadence and learn to use your gears, then you’ll find your speed increasing along with your fitness without exhausting yourself.

Here are a few good articles on cadence from: Active.com, BikeRadar.com, and EasyCycling.com.

2. Gears Make the Impossible Possible

I’ve got a lot of respect for the fixie guys…but I’m never going to be one of them. With the mix of hills, wind and traffic in the Bay Area, I can’t imagine trying to get around without a good mix of gears.

There is a gear pair (front & back) for every situation and the only way to find the right set for you is to experiment. Having a regular commute helps with this because you can try different combinations on the same route until you find what works. I’m not at the point yet where I can tell you about different discs. But I know that the more I experiment with my gears, the better my riding gets. I’ve been able to shave minutes off of each leg of my ride just by shifting better and knowing what gears correspond to what amount of effort on my part. I also find myself taking hills with a lot less effort.

3. You Need Lights — Bright, Blinking Lights

My first week, I didn’t have lights on my bike. This was a big mistake. San Francisco is not a very well lit city compared to Boston or Chicago. You can find yourself on streets where headlights and lights from apartment windows are all you’ve got. Lights are important not just for you to see, but also for people to see you. If you are riding at night and especially through Golden Gate Park, then you need to make sure that you stand out.

One of my near-misses happened my first week, I was rolling through an intersection and was nearly plowed over by a guy who came around a turn. I’m still not sure if he stopped at the stop sign, but he grazed my back tire and gave me a small heart attack.

Since getting lights, I find that riders keep distance from me when I’m in the street and I don’t find myself as scared moving through dark parts of the park.

4. Bike Shops Owners Keep Great Hours

I leave for work at 6am and get back in the city at 6pm. With that schedule it’s really hard to get to a bike shop during the week. Most of the shops open at 10am and close at 5 or 6pm. Some stay open to 7, but they aren’t really convenient to me. There is no shortage of bike shops in San Francisco, but I think they’ve all agreed to keep very leisurely hours. I don’t begrudge them their hours — its nice work if you can get it — but it makes repairs and buying parts a bit of a pain.

The plus side is that it’s forcing me to learn more about my bike and stock up on spare parts.

5. The Wiggle is your best friend

The Wiggle is a winding path through the city that lets you go West without dealing with the steepest hills. It’s a slow, steady elevation increase that allows you to pace yourself and has enough street lights built in for you to catch a breath if you need it. It’s also completely marked with signs and markers on the road all the way into the panhandle.

The Wiggle bike route through the city. -- A life saver.

My first time riding home, I “lost” the Wiggle and decided to pedal up Page to get back into the park. I didn’t walk right for 2 days after that ride. There is a hill on Page, just past Divisadero, that kicked my butt.

The Wiggle means that anyone can make it home. It’s still a good workout, but it’s not a killer.

6. It can be Scary, but it’s a lot of Fun

Bikes are considered road vehicles in San Francisco. That means you share the road with cars, motorcycles, scooters and even skateboarders. Going on the sidewalk can lead to a ticket, so you have to get used to swerving around double parked trucks, stopping suddenly because someone cuts you off and timing lights to make it through.

I was a leisure rider before moving out here. I might ride in the street when there were bike paths, but otherwise I stayed on the sidewalk. Now, I’m always out there. It’s scary when you’re riding in rush hour and there is a delivery truck riding your ass. It’s even scarier when that truck is behind you and someone decides to cut across 2 lanes in order to make a right turn in front of you. You have to stay awake and keep checking the road.

Once you get used to the need for vigilance, you find that it’s pretty damn fun. There is the speed, the view of the city you get as you roll through neighborhoods, and the low-key camaraderie of fellow cyclist. San Francisco is also a place where the bike is often faster than using the Muni — I get from Outer Sunset to the Mission in about 27 minutes while the N-Judah can take 45. The riding helps you feel like you are part of the city and that’s a great feeling for a transplant.

I’ve spent the last month learning to ride and still have a lot to learn. I’ll be taking an Urban Bicycling class next month and am excited about getting better. I’m also just starting to deal with rain and colder days as Winter finally arrives, so that’s another element to figure out.

If you’ve just started riding, then stick with it. If you are a seasoned pro, then tell me what I’m missing (tips, events, trails) in the comments.