Biking Around the Bay(s)

On September 4-6, 2004, Labor Day weekend, I biked 319km around San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay. It was really hot. Each day was 35C-38C.

It was hot in the shade by 9:30am, oppressive by 10:30, and from 11am to 5pm it was mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly, life-sappingly hot. They were the sort of days on which I'd normally never consider doing anything strenuous, much less for several hours, three days in a row.

Biking at night had too many logistical challenges (many paths and bridges close to bikes, plus it's hard to see), and I could only get so far before the heat slammed down, so I ended up doing most of my biking in the furnace, and to a large extent, that defined this trip.

See, I didn't know it was going to be hot. It sounds absurd to embark on a 3-day bike trip without checking the weather forecast, but it's California, and I've got another month or two before it rains, so it didn't even occur to me that there might be anything worth knowing. I hadn't planned much at all, having only thought this up a couple days before, but you can bet I'll check the weather next time. I'm glad I didn't though, because if I had, I wouldn't have gone.

Was it fun? Well, it was satisfying, and the extra helping of adversity makes it more of an achievement.

Read on, for photos and tales from the oven. But first, a map.

a map showing my route around the bay

Day 1

Here I am, ready to roll out. Notice the innocent expression, mixed in with the bleariness that comes with leaving the house at 8:45am.

Scenic Milpitas, the first of the concrete urban wastelands I'd pass through, and perhaps the largest. I hadn't actually planned out my full route yet. I had a rough idea of how to get through the first half of Milpitas, and then I had to make a choice. Did I want to spend the entire day biking up the endless concrete corridor of the east bay, or did I want to go 20km out of my way up into the hills to go by Calaveras reservoir?

Detour to Calaveras reservoir.

I was making good time, and was more in the neighborhood than ever before, so I figured what the heck. What's another 20km? Bill Hare's place is on the way, so I stopped in to say hi and refill water. "It's supposed to be hot this weekend." "Yeah?"

It was hot when I dropped down out of the hills, but the scale of the problem hadn't dawned on me yet. By the time I entered Sunol though, I decided I needed to stop at the first sign of civilization to get out of the heat for a while. 10km later, in/at Niles Junction, this Mexican oasis appeared. Garlic over the door reassured patrons that no vampires would bother us during our meal.

Here I am, crawling up the main drag of each east bay municipality. They blend together, but I take pictures of the "Now entering ..." signs anyway to acknowledge my progress.

I'd long since considered crawling under a rock and waiting to die, but I couldn't find a rock large enough. This car wash in Hayward was even more tempting, but I couldn't muster the emotional and physical effort required to cross the street and stop making progress. Louise later pointed out that the sign does say "wash cycles", so I ought to have felt welcome.

Finally off the main road, I chased down this truck of frozen delight. The super-freeze turned out to be more sugar than ice, and it was pretty gross, but it was cold and it gave me an excuse to sit for a while.

BART was also tempting. I kept passing BART stations, thinking "I could take this train and then another train and be just a few miles from home, where I wouldn't have to ride my bike anymore." But I'm stubborn and I kept going.

Throughout the entire trip, some part of my brain kept trying to arrange for a ride. Every now and then it would point out a possible solution. "There's a pickup truck. I'll bet they'd give you a ride, and you could toss the bike in back." "Shut up! I'm doing this!" another part of me would reply, resolutely trudging onward.

Biking up Mission Blvd in Oakland was one of the more interesting things I did on this trip. I was wearing a fancy and colorful cycling jersey, cycling shorts, and a helmet, so I looked as out of place as if I'd fallen from a passing spaceship. Traffic there was unlike anywhere else I've biked. It wasn't just busy, chaotic, and interactive. It had a lot of character. I recommend trying it sometime if you enjoy biking in heavy traffic, but you should probably try to blend in a bit more than I did.

Also, I think this stretch of Oakland wins the least-like-everywhere-else prize. You'd think that uninhabited marshland or an abandoned naval base would be more different, but no, it's Oakland.

So that was the first day. Well, parts of it. I left out the sandwich shop in Oakland where I got a drink and sat for an hour, trying to cool off, I left out the smell of road kill on a hot day, and I gave up on describing all the slightly different kinds of hot I felt and the heavy crushing of spirit that it brings after a few hours.

I also left out the part about how I'd been hoping to get as far as San Pablo, or maybe even Vallejo. I'd arranged a place to stay in Piedmont (Oakland, basically), but I was hoping I wouldn't stop that far south. Not counting the Calaveras detour, I was only 85km into the trip, and that would leave 138km on day two to get to San Francisco. With the detour though, I'd actually gone 105km, but that didn't make day two any easier.

I probably could have stopped for dinner and then gone quite a bit farther once the day cooled off, but as the day was winding down, closing in on a place to stop was all that kept me going. The heat really slowed me down, both by forcing me to take long breaks and by dropping my average speed from my usual already leisurely 24kph down to an 18kph crawl.

After I got a shower and some dinner, I thought about whether to continue on the ride the next day. The first day had been beastly, and I didn't relish the idea of another two like that. Also, I wouldn't have the option of bailing out by train if I wanted to give up during the second day. I decided to do as much riding as possible before it got hot, then seek shelter until it cooled off again. I set my alarm for 4am, still not really convinced that I would go through with it.

Day 2

At 4am, I responded to the beeping alarm the way any sane and rational person would: "Screw that. I'm going back to sleep, and then I'm going home.". I woke up again at 6am, had a big breakfast, and started packing up to head to a BART station. Somehow, and I'm really not sure how or when this happened, by the time I got outside with my bike, I'd changed my mind and decided to continue. It was 7am, the sun was already up, and I didn't have long before the oven door would slam shut. I remember at some point thinking I would bike to the northernmost BART station as a compromise, but by the time I was moving, I'd abandoned that pretense and was starting the longest single-day ride of my life, in the worst heat I've ever biked through.

Actually, though, the first day was the worst. By the second day, I'd acclimated enough that I didn't have to force myself to drink water, so although the ride was long and hard, at least I didn't spend the whole day dehydrated the way I had the day before. Of course, the water I was drinking was usually hot, but you take what you can get.

A circus pub! This reminded me of the clown bar in Shakes the Clown. They mean "circus" as in "roundabout", as the pub was situated by one, but still I think it would be fun to go there with a bunch of jugglers and acrobats one day.

More signs of progress. I was hoping there would be a shop named "Pinole Camera", but no.

"Rodeo Express Chinese Food". I really want to see these guys make a delivery.

Behold the scenic oil refinery. The amount of research and construction needed to build and operate this facility is staggering, as is the reminder of how much of our lifestyle depends on places like this. I didn't personally use any gasoline on this trip, but refined oil was used to make my bike and all my gear, and to grow and transport all the food I ate along the way. This place isn't pretty, but it's impressive and important.

The new Carquinez bridge is one of the few major bridges in the bay area that's open to cyclists. To cross most bridges (San Mateo, Bay, Richmond, Benicia), I'd have had to catch a bus, some of which only operate during the week. (For example, the only way across the Richmond bridge with a bike on the weekend is by hitchhiking.) This fine new bridge has a nice pedestrian/cyclist path that opened just a few months ago.

This photo shows both the new suspension bridge in the foreground, and the old, less elegant pair of bridges behind it (to its east).

Once across the bridge, I was in Vallejo. Vallejo is the last stop before Novato, 33km to the west, and there's nothing in between, so I absolutely had to refill my water before I left town. Vallejo turns out to be pretty small, and skirting the edge as I did, I nearly went through it without finding anything, but a gas station came through for me with a minimart.

The blue vertical-lift bridge seemed much more inviting than the heavy-traffic big-climb more-distant one. Before reaching the bridge though, I came to a guard post that was equipped with cones, stop sign, and a seemingly-purposeless guard. I stopped, and he just looked at me. I asked if I could go on the bridge with the bike, which was dumb, since he might have said no, but I felt like someone ought to say something. He said yes, and he didn't have anything else to say, so I started to go.

Just as I was getting moving, he hands me a slip of paper that explains that I'm entering Mare Island, a decommissioned naval shipyard, and outlines various things I shouldn't do, like touch anything dangerous looking or dig holes in the ground. Um, ok.

The naval base itself was desolate. Lots of old abandoned buildings and old abandoned roads, which I suppose I should have taken pictures of. I don't know why anyone would visit though. I was just passing through on my way to the main road, but it turned out there was no way through to the main road. Some cones (again with the cones!) and a sign proclaimed that my road was closed. Well, if the road really was closed, then I'd have to go back across the blue bridge, go to the other bridge, and then go over the other, far more formidable looking bridge, just to get to a spot I was already pretty close to. I figured that if the other end of this road was only as closed as this end, with cones and a sign, it wouldn't pose much of a problem, so up the closed road I went.

But no, this end of the road was closed a bit more tightly with a high fence and barbed wire. Still, I was able to slide my gear under the gate, lift my bike over the chain and through the slot between gate and fence, and climb over. I guess it was closed so that they wouldn't need a second guy handing out those important slips of paper.

The other bridge arrives on the west side, just outside the gate I hopped.

If you glance at a map, you'll see that between Vallejo and Novato is a single road and just about nothing else. This road is Highway 37. It's one lane of car traffic in each direction, separated by a concrete barrier. This sounds like an awful place to ride a bike, but I had a roomy shoulder, less than half of which was taken up by a monstrous rumble strip. (A rumble strip is a deliberately bumpy section of pavement that serves to wake up drivers who start to drift off the road.) The rumble zone enforced a safe buffer between me and the cars, so this was actually a fine place to cruise along for a couple hours.

I'm a sucker for new experiences though, and not only had I never biked next to a rumble strip, I'd never biked on a rumble strip either. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be something better left undone. It'd probably be fine on a mountain bike with shock absorbers, or maybe at slower speeds, but at 24kph, it nearly shook apart both me and my bike. Should you choose to ignore this warning and rumble away yourself someday, at least consider putting your hands on the handlebars. I often ride on my elbows for reduced drag and to rest my arms, but it turns out that my elbows are not particularly well padded.

There are few opportunities to stop on Highway 37, so when you come to the Richard "Fresh Air" Jansen Bridge and its scenic viewpoint of marshland, you take a moment to enjoy the view, such as it is. The rest stop even came provisioned with a mattress, should I care to doze for a bit in the cool and refreshing direct sunlight. Another traveler was nice enough to take my picture.


The Petaluma river.

Highway 101! I made it back to civilization, sort of. I had a tough time finding my way across the highway into town (I never did quite make it to Novato), but the ramp overpass provided the first shade I'd had in a few hours.

Food, cold drinks, and a two hour break. This is the first open building since Vallejo, three hours ago. The air conditioning in here struggled valiantly to keep the place down to about 28C. I managed to nap a bit after lunch.

Some boys asked me if I was in a race like the other cyclists they'd seen. I told them I wasn't going to be breaking any speed records, but they also asked where I was coming from, and they were really impressed when I told them I'd started that morning in Oakland. Two of them shook my hand, and one said I should be in the Tour de France.

I napped on this bench for an hour or so because I was tired, but also on the premise that the longer I dallied at this point, the less hot it would be when I did the rest of the biking I had left. I'd have stayed longer, but I thought of a snag in my plan. When I crossed over the Carquinez bridge, I saw that the bridge was only open to bicycles between sunrise and sunset. Many bike trails I'd been on said the same thing. I didn't know what the rules were for the Golden Gate bridge, but being stuck on the north side of the bridge would have sucked, so I figured I'd better make it there by sundown. I didn't have much leeway left.

Video Droid, in San Rafael. An MST3K reference? Are all those silhouetted audience members making silly comments? Where are the droids I'm looking for?

All I saw of Mill Valley was this hill. As I hurtled down the far side, not only did my ears pop, but I got my first glimpse of San Francisco. I'd been hoping to take a picture of that first view, but I was going pretty fast and it was gone before I could react.

Sausalito was hopping with day trippers. I must have passed a hundred cars on this road by the water. The view of San Francisco was nice though, and it was good to see I was getting close.

After studying two signs full of rules, I concluded that I wasn't in a rush after all. The bridge was open to pedestrians and cyclists until dark, and after dark, cyclists could theoretically press a button to have the gate opened. Still, it was nice to be there before it was dark.

The "bike route" signs near the bridge were confusing, and I'd ended up on the east side of the roadway. The complex signage reluctantly admitted what I already knew, that the east side is open to pedestrians and cyclists, and the west side of the bridge is for cyclists only.

I wanted to take my hard-earned place over on the west side, and there's a walkway under the bridge just for such a crossing. The stairs down were a bit difficult with my loaded bike, but the view of the bridge from underneath was pretty cool.

Now entering San Francisco. It looks like I just missed sunset, but the sky was still amazing.

Actually, no, I hadn't missed sunset. A little farther along the bridge, I could see the sun still peeking out from behind the headlands, getting a last glimpse of the bay before it slipped out of sight entirely. That explained why there were still shiny glinting bits in the east bay. This was the most beautiful sunset I'd seen in a long time. I'm sure that was partly due to being where I was and having biked 230km to get there, but even just looking at it, it was incredible.

It was also nice to see the sunset from the west side of the bridge, without having all the traffic in the way. Many pedestrians were taking pictures of the sunset across traffic, and with me in their picture. Ha ha ha.

Darkness fell quickly, and I made my way through the Presidio, south through a bit of the city, south through the park, and then to the Ratwerks, site of hospitality, and my home away from home for the night. There were friendly people, a shower, food, and even a half decent movie. (The movie was fully decent, but I only saw half of it.) I washed my jersey, put my water bottles in the freezer, and turned in early.

Day 3

Once again, an early morning start. Not so early that I'd avoid biking in the gruesome, draining heat, but far earlier than I wanted to be getting out of bed.

Getting on my bike that morning was a chore. I was weary. Here I was starting the day, and I already felt like I just finished a long ride. My butt was sore, my legs were tired, and setting myself down onto that seat was not a pleasant way to start the day, but I wasn't going to quit with only 77km to go.

I thought it might be a while before I ran across a water source again, so I got some extra. At this point I'm carrying about 4kg of water. As it turned out, I didn't need anywhere near that much, but better too much than too little.

Off in the distance, I could see Sign Hill Park, with its giant sign on the hill that I usually see from Hwy 101 or during treasure hunts. (If you have sturdy clothing, you can slide down the letters on the sign, and it's a lot of fun.)

So I'm biking down Skyline, or I should say I'm biking up and down Skyline, and at some point I notice there's a bike trail. It started back at the last intersection, 100m behind me, down the hill. It looks like a fine bike trail, but there's a fence between me and it, and rather than climb a fence or go down and back up the hill, I figure I'll just stay on the road. There's plenty of room, not much traffic, and anyway the bike trail is in the sun, but the road is still in the shade.

This worked out fine, so even when the trail started looking even more scenic and there was another entrance, I decided to stay on the road. After all, the trail had a 15mph speed limit and pedestrians to weave around.

I changed my mind when the road I was on merged with I-280. I found a break in the barbed wire fence (which I guess was there for when they closed the park at sunset), tossed my bike over, and continued on the scenic route, which turned out to be really nice.

This was the Sawyer Camp Trail down the side of Crystal Springs Reservoir. There were many runners, some cyclists, some great views, and lots of bugs who couldn't keep up with my bike, but were happy to swarm all over me when I stopped to put on sunscreen.

Crystal Springs Dam

It's not quite up there with the feeling of passing a hundred traffic-jammed cars in Sausalito, but I enjoyed being told I could pass through the police roadblock, because I'd have no trouble getting passed the overturned truck up ahead. Also, I don't think I'd have enjoyed a detour on I-280.

No one was hurt. The trailer turned over and dumped its load of debris, but the cab stayed upright. A large tow truck was trying to pull the trailer back up.

Highway 92 and Cañada Road.

The Water Temple. This was a momentous arrival for me, because I once biked here from the other direction, which also means I'd biked home from here before. Paul and I rode up here one fine summer day a couple years ago, only to find that the water temple was closed for some sort of renovations. I thought it would be open by now and that it was fitting that I returned by bike, but it was still closed, and I still haven't seen the water temple.

Hot and tired (as usual), climbing up a hill on Cañada, I saw a crooked umbrella poking up from behind a minivan. I thought maybe someone was selling cold drinks, but it was a painter. All she had to offer was turpentine, so I stuck with my own hot water. She thought I was crazy for being out biking in this heat at noon, and when I told her I was going to Sunnyvale (about 35km more), she thought that was a long way to go.

Here we have some really bad pictures of SLAC, Hoover Tower (mostly hidden behind trees), and Stanford's dish (mostly hidden behind a hill). In my defense, I was going about 40kph when I took these pictures. I'd had much better views of the tower and the dish, but couldn't get my camera out in time.

Four enterprising young women were selling food and cold drinks at the corner of Foothill & Arastradero, a great place to ensnare cyclists.

Home, at last! I made it!

So, it was hot. Aside from that, it was a nice ride. Long, but grueling only because of the heat. The hills were minor and the traffic light except in Oakland. Would I do it again? I don't need to! I'm glad I did it, but enough is enough. My bike is creaking a bit and two weeks later, I still am too. I'd definitely want to try a more radical bicycle seat design before doing another ride this long, and I'm no longer so sure I want to try a really long trip, but I should probably give different weather a chance and see what that's like. The bad parts of this trip (the heat) were pretty bad, but the good parts were pretty good (no flats, lots of satisfaction), and they all add up to something I'll remember. Especially since I wrote it down. :)