Story by Andrew Juiliano//Photography by Derek Yarra
Trapped. Claustrophobic. Anxious. I’d barely stepped out of the car, on my first day in San Francisco, and I already felt overwhelmed. Maybe it was the dozens of stoplights and the endless traffic that sucked me into the city. Perhaps it was the thirty minutes wandering the neighborhoods north of Golden Gate Park looking for a parking space. It could have been the row homes smashed together for blocks on end that left me feeling like a rat trapped in a pastel stucco maze.
But the foreignness of these new surroundings was the real source of my helplessness. I’d just driven my worldly possessions 13 hours across Interstate 80, through the Nevada desert, over the Sierra Mountains and into the traffic of the sprawling East Bay to arrive at my new home in the city. I was out of my element. I’d lived and worked at a mountain lodge, 30 miles from the closest town of Ketchum, Idaho. Galena had once been a sprawling mining community of 800 at the end of the 19th century, before the silver standard ended and the town dried up.
A hundred and thirty years later, 12 of us lived in the woods surrounding the lodge, which catered weddings and served meals to the tourists driving along Highway 75. I myself had yurted up with my best friend, Mose–a 6’2”, 220-pound bear of a man, in the middle of Central Idaho’s actual bear country. The two of us lived the happy-go-lucky lives of early 20-something-year-old dirtbags. We slept in a glorified tent at the foot of an 11,000-foot mountain, cooked at the lodge and rode some of the best singletrack known to humankind, straight out our door.
I’d left the solitude, fresh air and secluded mountain trails behind, and followed my girlfriend to the heavy fog and bustle of San Francisco. She chased a degree in physical therapy, and I chased her straight into the most densely populated city on the West Coast. Nearly a million people crammed onto the hills of the seven by seven mile tip of the peninsula. Still feeling trapped, claustrophobic, anxious, I stood in front of my new row home on Arguello Boulevard, in the Richmond neighborhood in the northwest of the city, wondering what kind of urban chaos I’d gotten my rural, little self into.
The days passed, and I felt increasingly imprisoned by the city, especially my inner cyclist. I had to drive 45 minutes each way to Marin County, to mountain bike on trails I didn’t know, with the threat of militant park rangers ready to confiscate my only prized possession if I became a little too adventurous. Even the world-class road riding on Mount Tam, right across the Bay, was hard to reach.
Thousands of rubbernecking tourists would walk across the Golden Gate Bridge snapping selfies, clogging the ten feet of pedestrian path. On the worst of days, it could take an excruciating 30 minutes to crawl through the two miles of crowds on a bike. It became a chore just trying to get to the rides. I felt my cycling life slowly suffocating. Then I got a cyclocross bike, and everything changed.
On that cross bike, I wasn’t bored by a little tarmac, like I was on my mountain bike. I didn’t mind the choppy cadence of cross-town pedaling, through lights, cars and walkers that would break both rhythm and spirit on a road ride. Weaving through traffic, hopping up curbs, latching onto the back of the N Judah tram line for some pedaling respite...I learned to embrace the flow of the city as the obstacles became joyous interludes during a day of knobby tired, drop-bar urban riding. The bike was fast on the pavement. It made the relatively tame dirt trails more exciting. It was the perfect tool for a city that had great riding, if I was just willing to find it.
Between my shifts on an ambulance, I’d hop on the cross bike and roll into Golden Gate Park. The park starts on the western edge of the city at Ocean Beach and stretches fifty blocks to the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, celebrated as the epicenter of 1960s hippiedom and the former stomping grounds of the Grateful Dead. The bouge factor has replaced much of the counterculture vibe over the last 60 years, but that old spirit still lingers. The transient folks sitting outside Whole Foods will still offer up a pull from the joint from between their lips.
Ahhh the remnants of the good old days. I was after those too, but I sought a different kind of nostalgia. I wanted that feeling that I’d left behind in the mountains. The freedom. The trails. The escape. The park had bits and pieces. I could almost lose myself in it, and forget the sirens and revving engines that echoed through the urban forest. There on the east end of the park, where it butted into Stanyan Street, I’d give the neighborhood a glance, and then swoop back into the trees.
Into the thickets that surrounded the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young museum of fine art. Down the trails that skirted the traffic on Park Presidio, one of the main veins pumping cars north through the city. Past the casting ponds, where anglers honed their fishing skills, while dreaming of mountain streams and leaping trout far from the horn honks that drifted across the park. Popping out at the beach, where Western civilization abruptly meets the wilderness of the Pacific Ocean, I’d gaze at the waves and sigh before doubling back for another lap of urban dirt escape.
The months passed, and the cross bike expanded the riding territory. I soon found that a couple blocks of pavement here and there would tie together the green spaces scattered throughout the city. A set of sandy stairs led from the beach up to the terraced park of Sutro Heights, which overlooked Ocean Beach as it stretched south beyond the Sunset neighborhood to the city limits. A dip through another parking lot led to the cliff top eucalyptus groves of Land’s End, perched above the bay. Another couple of staircases would pop out at the Legion of Honor fine art museum. There, a bronze casting of Rodin’s Thinker sat pensively in the courtyard, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay poking through the trees.
Dropping through the Sea Cliff Neighborhood, where the likes of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and other tech moguls live, led to the Presidio, a former military base that is now a giant public park. It covers over two square miles at the south end of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. That red giant that spans the bay was the one escape route to the rural mountains of Marin County. I’d occasionally bump my way through the crowds, but as the months passed, I felt less and less inclined. I’d simply ride past the tollbooths, shake my head at the tour busloads jamming the pedestrian walkway, and climb back into the forest groves, on faint overgrown trails. The paths had burned in by the occasional day hikers from downtown, but mostly from the city’s ever-growing homeless community, searching for safe places to spend the cold, foggy nights.
After two and a half years of exploration, I’d pieced together enough dirt to cover the biggest parks and major high points around the north end of the city. The nearly three-hour ride within the city limits had all but 15 minutes on dirt. That was the kind of tarmac to trail ratio that would have me reaching for a mountain bike, but more often than not, I just left it at home. The terrain, too tame for full suspension, was righteous fun on a fully rigid CX rig. I spent more and more of my days discovering the joys of San Francisco while riding a bike born in the muddy fields of Europe a century ago. The same kind of riding that had turned the otherwise ordinary landscapes of the Low Countries into some of the most revered terrain in all of cycling, had saved my love for cycling, in a city that I never thought I could enjoy.
And just as I’d come to find as much comfort in city cycling as I had with the BBQ pork pho around the corner from my house, it was time to go. My girlfriend graduated from physical therapy school. I landed a full-time job writing and editing for a bicycle magazine in Southern California. It was a path to a career that I’d always wanted, writing and riding. It was my ticket out of San Francisco. Yet after so much time wishing I could escape for good, it was a ticket I was sad to finally punch.
The evening before I left, the car loaded once again with all those worldly possessions, I took one last spin. It was the end of a sunny December afternoon, the kind of seasonal backwardness that tourists could never imagine when they visit this misty, cold corner of California in the midst of the summer. I lamented what I was leaving behind. It took me so long to finally like it here. Thanks to my bike, I had even started to love it. I felt sad standing on Sutro Heights watching the sun sink over the ocean. But as I rolled back down the hill to Golden Gate Park, I found solace in the bicycle I rode. It was coming with me. The bike would help me find the best wherever I went next. It always had. And it always would.