It seems that bicyclists have overtaken the streets of San Francisco. Though I hadn’t ridden in years, I decided it was time to hop on the bike wagon.
Being a native San Franciscan, I learned how to ride here. I would have preferred somewhere flat, like, say, Nebraska, but since I was only five, I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I also learned to drive a stick in the city, and let me just say that involuntarily rolling backward halfway down a Pacific Heights hill remains almost as thrilling today as it was when I was 15.
I wasn’t one of those kids who took to cycling like a duck takes to water. For me, learning to ride was mostly learning how to tumble gracefully. I was never very athletic — ask anyone from my Aptos Junior High gym class who saw me cry doing a somersault (seriously, has that skill been helpful to any of you in any way?). Apparently, my athletic skills haven’t improved.
Recently, my husband rescued an old, discarded bicycle on the street. After cleaning the little guy up (my bike, not my husband) and replacing the seat for one more suitable to my un-Kardashian-like bottom, it was time for us to take a ride one crisp, Sunday-Streets-in-the-Embarcadero morning.
My husband directed me onto busy Van Ness Avenue. “Wait!” I said, “Why don’t we just ride on the sidewalk?”
“Because that’s illegal,” he responded casually as he headed into the intersection.
Now I was concerned. Had the laws changed that much since I was a kid? No more safely cruising the sidewalks while simultaneously clutching my Cherry Coke and transistor radio? I pulled myself together, took a deep breath, and pedaled out to join the flow of traffic.
“Watch out for car doors and people pulling out!” he hollered from behind me. “Take a right turn and use your hand signals! And remember people can’t see you!” he called out. Wobbling like a drunken sailor, I only wished that were true.
My hands gripped the brakes like they were the safety bar on the Sky Screamer at Six Flags. “Speed up and get around that double-parked truck,” my husband yelled over the din of traffic. It took me a while to pry my now-white knuckles off the brakes to switch gears, but I did. And let me tell you, I was emotionally spent after traveling those two blocks.
I quickly got the hang of city biking, but my helmet — or, “brain bucket,” as the pros call it — was way too big for my head. I stopped to slip my baseball cap underneath to hold the helmet steady, leaving me looking like a Giants-lovin’ space alien, much to my husband’s delight.
Soon, I relaxed enough so that I could appreciate the cool bay breeze against my cheeks and feel the awesome rush of speeding down some of our city’s most hellacious hills, though Jones Street remained strictly off-limits. Meanwhile, my poor hubby was breaking a sweat behind me, not from any physical challenges, but from the fear of seeing me, his bubble-headed wife, weaving in and out of the bike path.
At the sun-kissed Embarcadero, I was instructed by my navigator to move into the “green lane.” Now the green lane is an outstanding bike lane; however, near Sansome, it moves over one lane into the middle of traffic to allow for a right turn lane for cars. Somehow, I had to get from the far right to the middle-far right without being hit by a car. Really? Did people do this every day? After a lot of cussing on his part and clenching on my part, I finally did it. I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders, much like Tim Lincecum must have felt when he chopped off his hair.
Finally, we entered the closed-off Sunday Streets, where we blended into the crowd of bikers and families. My confidence soared, even as 4-year-olds popping wheelies sped past me. If those kids could do this, so could I!
The rest of our ride was great as we took in the amazing bay views. My only hitch was getting stuck in the trolley tracks while returning through Fisherman’s Wharf, but I’ll just chalk that up as another near-death experience.
So, is riding a bike really just like riding a bike? In San Francisco, I’d say it’s more like riding a roller coaster — which the masochist in me really loves. So if you happen to see a female bicyclist in San Francisco wearing a bizarro baseball-cap-bike-helmet thingy screaming “WHEEE!” like the Geico pig as she’s flying down Jones Street, keep an eye out for the freaked-out guy riding behind her. He may need your help.