Back in the Saddle
Upon completing my last gym class 15 years ago, I'd vowed to never again exercise in the presence of another human being.
But then I inadvertently caught the bike bug.
On my way up to the Fruit Shelf one day at Dolores Park, I glanced over at the bicyclists buzzing around Fixed-Gear Flats. "Could I do that?" I wondered, and was ready to answer "not a chance" when I spotted a friend lolling in the midst. I wandered over to say hello and, unexpectedly, to ogle. “I didn’t even know you owned a bike,” I told my friend, sizing up his gear. It was the closest that I'd been to a resting bicycle in years, and I'd forgotten the power they exude – and convey upon their tamer. My fear of public physical exertion began to crumble.
But wait. Fifteen years had passed since I last experienced anything above a resting heart rate. Did I belong on a bike? And more importantly, would I look like an idiot?
I decided to check in with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. They're the folks you can thank for bike lanes on Market Street, colored pavement, valet bike parking, and, crucially, the mid-summer Ice Cream Ride, a tour of local ice creameries.
Visiting the SFBC offices at 4th and Market, I peppered Program Manager Marc Caswell with questions: Where should I buy a bike? What kind should I get? Can I make a tumble look like an intentional dismount? I pretended to be gathering facts and figures for an article, but really all I cared about was how not to look dumb.
Marc did his best to reassure me. He recommended Valencia Street, where bike shops breed; or Mojo Bicycle Café on Divisadero, a bike shop/café hybrid. He also pointed out that the SFBC provides free classes, and my ears perked up; maybe some training could keep me from careening clumsily into the bay.
As we chatted, Marc described a bike that had been abandoned nearby and was tugging his heartstrings. "Finding a bike in the garbage is like finding a puppy and nursing it back to health," he told me. Awwww. Compare anything to a puppy, and my doubts evaporate.
But at the SFBC class a few days later, my nerves were jangled by a catastrophic what-not-to-do film in which a distracted cyclist was shown crashing into a sidewalk café. "Hey!" the patrons shouted at him. Oh God, I thought, that could have been me. It probably will be. I am doomed. Am I really doing this?
Other students were anxious, too. A follow-up class was to be scheduled next weekend. "How proficient should I be to take it?" one student asked.
"Can you ride a bike?" asked the instructor. The student answered, "yes," to which the instructor said, "Good enough!"
Okay, I thought, maybe I'm making too much of my anxieties. At the very least, there couldn't be any harm in visiting some bike shops, right?
It was at Pacific Bicycle on 4th Street that I met the prettiest bike in the world.
My first thought upon entering the shop was "what the hell am I looking at?" Every single model looked identical: two circles on a polygon with a couple of wires on top. Was there some distinction that I simply couldn't detect? It was like standing in a wine aisle.
A sales guy named Darcy came to my rescue, taking me upstairs to a Bianchi that made my face flush and my palms sweat. I don't know why the bike had this effect on me. Maybe it was the subtle swoop at the front end of the top tube, or the foamy green-blue paint, or the classic font in the mid-century logo that practically oozed ciao . But it was love.
"Want to test ride?" he asked. I made a frightened peeping noise in response. I wasn't sure if I could even operate the kickstand.
But a few circles around the block later, I never wanted to stop. Apparently, riding a bike really is like riding a bike.
Giddy, I told Darcy I'd do a little more shopping around, as some bike-owning friends had advised, then caught a slow bus home. As I rode, my mind kept wandering back to subtle swoops, foamy green-blue paint, and that lovely mid-century logo.
Next, I ventured over to San Francisco Cyclery, where I met Sarah. Assertive and no-nonsense, she steered me away from bike shopping on Craigslist. "Good ones are hard to find online," she confided. "Everyone wants to hang on to the good ones."
Down the street at Avenue Cyclery, I pressed the affably bearded JP for advice: "Do you ever spot first-time riders making obvious mistakes?" I asked. "Not really," he said. "I don't ride around like, 'ehhhh, newbie.'" Encouraging news!
From there, I wandered into American Cyclery, the oldest bike shop in the city, and nearly knocked over a bicycle that cost more than all of the furniture in my apartment. A tall sales guy named Mark with sleeve tattoos sized me up and started telling me about wheel sizes and weights and components. As my head spun, I wondered if this is how people feel when I tell them how I fixed their computer.
Mark had me hop up onto a bike and regarded my limbs to see if the frame was a good fit. "I'm looking at your size," he said. "Height, width, length." I nodded with interest; after I left the shop, I realized that a week ago, such a close inspection of my physique would have mortified me.
I swung by Valencia Street next. Mission Bicycle, located on the ground floor of a former mortuary, has made bike-buying into an iMac-like science: You assemble your dream machine one color and component at a time, and then even when you realize how much each upgrade is going to cost, you buy it anyway.
Jefferson, the store manager, showed me Mission Bicycle’s proprietary frame, the Valencia, a solid-color beauty that's delightfully free of logos. "It's utilitarian and a little sexy," said Jefferson, "more like a piece of art."
Down the street at the Freewheel Bike Shop, I took a bike out for a
test ride, dipping into Valencia Street with success – rolling
traffic and around cars, I did not feel like a complete moron.
And then suddenly I realized I was on bike-antagonistic street Guerrero, cars blasting full speed past me as I faced my first uphill ride in 15 years. As I heaved myself over the top, my nervousness was replaced by a sense of satisfaction at having conquered the tiny incline. Did I really just do that, I wondered. Yes, I supposed I had. Well! Good for me.
At City Cycle in the Marina, I took a Scott bike on a spin through the neighborhood. As it turns out, the Marina is a great place for a novice to ride – few cars, plenty of flat stretches. I got a little lost on my ride back to the shop, but I didn't mind.
Ted at Warm Planet Bikes reminisced with me about the bad old days before bike lanes. He showed me a few folding bikes, nifty transformer-like gizmos that turn from a vehicle into a sculptural sandwich of tires and tubes.
It was raining during my visit to Performance Bicycle Shop, so I took an alarmingly wobbly test ride around the store. Sales guy Steve, unflappable and cop-like, chalked up my unsteadiness to the too-light frame.
"A bike is very personal," Steve said. "It needs to fit you."
"Oh, like a cat," I said. I have no idea what I meant by that.
Okay, time to take the plunge. That dreamy Bianchi had been gleaming in my mind's eye ever since I saw it, and subsequent test rides proved that no bike would ever measure up. "Bianchi!" I thought. And also, "Am I really doing this?"
I gathered up my resolve and headed back in to Pacific Bicycle. After a flurry of locks and helmets and blinking accessories, I found myself gliding up Fourth Street like I belonged there. "Am I really doing this?" I asked myself one more time.
Yup. I was – but only just barely. Google's sadistic bike-planner map had advised me to climb McAllister, which looked easy. But, oh, when you're on a bike, a hill becomes a gravity well. "There's no way I'm pedaling up that," I thought, only to discover that I'd already started.
By the time I was halfway up, I was wheezing and aching. I began to fantasize about slowing to a stop and coasting backwards all the way back down into the store. My nose had started running uncontrollably, and I didn't want to stop to wipe it until I was at the top because I was afraid of losing momentum. "Dear God, what have I become," I wondered, a gasping slimy smear on the side of the road.
An approaching car honked at me, and by this point I was in NO MOOD. As the car traveled past, I turned my head and wheezed at the driver, "If you honk at me again I will PULL YOUR HAIR."
And then, miraculously, I was home. "I did it," I thought through a hazy head rush.
On nearly numb legs, I staggered through the door and attempted to peel off my sneakers with one hand while blowing my torrential nose with the other.
"Are you all right?" asked my husband. "Do you like your new bike?"
I was convinced that I was as close to death as any person has ever been, and yet for some reason, I heard myself gasp between hyperventilating, "tomorrow ... I'm going ... to ride it ... to the Presidio."
And I did.
It was great.
In the market for a bike? Start by figuring out what kind of riding you want to do; no matter your skill level, the helpful folks at any neighborhood bike shop will be able to guide you from there. No bicyclist is complete without membership in the SFBC – and no membership is complete without volunteering. Get in touch with Tessa at email@example.com and let her know that you'd like to swing by the 4th and Market office to lend a hand. And if you're looking for some practice time, head over to the lot at Stanyan and Waller, where you can circle around on mocked-up streets without the hassle of murderous cars.