It's pitch black, 2:30 a.m. I’m standing on the edge of a breaker, waves crashing around me, looking back at San Francisco. Around me is a bunch of people I've just met. Normal folks are turning in after a long night or have been fast asleep for some time. I am gazing at the San Francisco skyline as the beacons on Alcatraz blink across the dark waters. Nearby, one of my new compatriots produces two 12-packs of Tecate from a backpack and passes around beers.
“Third Saturday of every month,” another guy says, taking a sip. “I don’t give a fuck if I gotta call in sick the next day.” Like most of the folks opening beers at this late hour, he’s a dedicated member of the Midnight Mystery Bike Ride.
In San Francisco's quirky way, the concept of the Midnight Mystery Bike Ride is both simple and brilliant. A little before 11:59 p.m. on the third Saturday of the month, strangers gather at a secret location, revealed Saturday afternoon on Facebook. One person in the group has a bike route planned out. Everyone follows the leader on two wheels, stopping at predetermined party spots, having fun, meeting people, and getting to know their city, at a very late hour.
"We're just a bunch of bike weirdos, dorks, geeks, or hooligans who want to make excuses to ride," Ken Green, the ride's founder, told me. He did his first midnight excursion with a group in Portland, Oregon, and imported the tradition when he moved to San Francisco in 2010. "When else does someone come out at midnight, ride their bike, and follow some stranger to God knows where, just for fun?"
Anyone can join the ride, and perhaps just attending the event is harder than the course itself. This was actually my third attempt – I’d been foiled by heavy rain and a party that ran late (it's not easy to be on time to an event starting so late on a Saturday). If you look at Facebook the day after a ride, you'll see a couple of people commenting that they showed up to the meeting spot just a hair late and missed the train. The group isn’t kidding when it says midnight. The procession waits for no one.
But this time, I successfully join the group. Steve Rodriguez, our ride leader, has put together a course that is no joke. The group assembles at Rock Bar in the Outer Mission and fires off into the night. We wind around the Lower Mission, curve up Potrero Avenue, turn east, and eventually find ourselves in the Dogpatch, standing on a random pier. This is our first of three stops.
They say that if you want to test people's true character, give them power – and Ken tells me ride leaders have been known to get funky with it. Some have arranged elaborate scavenger hunts around the city. Others stoke people’s inner Lance Armstrong and hold races. And every once in a while, someone creates a midnight ride murder mystery. When you show up to caravan with strangers, be prepared for anything.
Steve obviously loves his city. You know that he hadn't planned this route by noodling around with Google Maps. These stops mean something to him. He talks about how this serene pier has become important to him, and how there are few better places to think to one's self than out on the water. Most of San Francisco's piers are so clogged with businesses, boats, and tourists that this becomes easy to forget.
Soon we depart and head up Third Street, exiting the Dogpatch, and wind behind AT&T Park, over the home run markers, under the towering Bay Bridge, and onto our second long pier behind the Ferry Building. We park our bikes, and now, the din of conversation within the group is noticeably softer. Nips and little flasks have been quietly circulating. A joint starts making the rounds. With at least half a dozen miles in our legs, everyone's feeling pretty loose. A few folks have peeled off, but for all intents and purposes we're still the same crew of 30 that left Rock Bar 45 minutes earlier.
There is something a little surreal about sitting on this normally bustling pier in the dark with no one around. The quiet is a bit unnerving – which is something to think about. You live in a city for long enough, and you get a bit on edge when it's perfectly calm around you. Some part of it harks back to those tense moments in high school when you'd sneak off to quiet places to drink beers or make out. But with the tourists scraped away and the ferries turned off, you see a place you've seen a hundred times, for the first time.
Finally we take off, tracing the circumference of the city on the Embarcadero, through Fisherman's Wharf (again, with no tourists, surreal), down to Crissy Field, and out to our final stop. It’s the dark pier that looks back on the city, the stars sharp in the sky. Here we crack open our Tecates. I don't even care that I'm going to have to bike another five miles to get home to the Mission. I am halfway out to Alcatraz, drinking beers with strangers, at 2 a.m. – and loving life.
Participating in the Midnight Mystery Bike Ride is as easy as checking “Yes” on the Facebook invite and showing up with your bike and party pants. You’ll just need to check on the afternoon of the third Saturday of each month to find out the start of the ride. Don’t be afraid to contribute food, drink, or anything else that the group could enjoy during the stops.