DIVERSITY ON THE ROADS
It was a rare sunny weekend in San Francisco, no fog in sight, one of those weekends that draws everyone out to the beach and outdoors. A great day for a short ride across the Golden Gate bridge for brunch and stories with my friend who was visiting from Seattle.
I met Luis in Mexico City when I was doing a group ride on a cheap folding bike I purchased to ride around for the two months I was there doing research for my documentary project, Mind the Gap, a film about sustainable urban transportation.
We connected over biking, advocacy, and food.
So when he came to visit San Francisco, a cycling city revered by activist cyclists in Mexico City because it is known as the birthplace of Critical Mass, of course we were going to ride.
Luis, the proud owner of a Specialized road bike, rented a road bike from Spinlister. I was riding my city bike purchased four years earlier at a time when I couldn’t even imagine riding five miles at a stretch.
I’ve since outgrown the bike. Still, that bike has taken me across Iowa for the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), it has taken me on 85 mile day rides and on a two night ride in the Mojave desert, partway down the Lost Coast in northern California, and countless other bike tours.
Our destination on that Saturday was a Real Food Real Stories event to hear stories of the adventures of an east coasterner turned Alaskan fisherman, artist, and now founder of an Alaskan salmon CSF (community supported fishery).
We took our time exploring a bit of the Bay Trail, a bicycle and pedestrian route that runs along San Francisco Bay, checking out the old shipyards, and getting coffee at the Ferry Building where Luis asked if we had “real” ferries. Seattle’s “real” ferries are enormous because they carry cars.
After weaving around pedestrians and into traffic to move around parked cars, we had just enough time to get to brunch.
To get over to Sausalito from San Francisco, we take the Golden Gate Bridge. It is one of the most iconic bridges in the world—and most visited public spaces in San Francisco.
By this time I was trying to go faster, and was passing some tourists when my tire felt strange. I was hoping it was the traffic on the bridge making the wobbly feel I was experiencing as I pedaled harder but Luis yelled to me that my tire was flat.
Sure enough, I had a flat.
THE WALK BEGINS
There were several thoughts going through my mind. We could turn around because technically we were closer to the start of our journey than the end, and there was a bus on the other side of the bridge.
Or we could move forward and try to get help or catch a bus at the Sausalito side of the bridge.
I had been super excited about the food event because I knew Luis was a foodie, so I opted to move forward.
As I was walking I tried to make myself as compact as possible so as not to obstruct the other cyclists on the bridge. I pushed my bike to as close to the rail as possible and moved my pedals so I could walk close to my frame.
I was regretting not bringing my tools and extra tube, something I have on “real rides” but not for a short jaunt across the bridge for brunch.
Walking, I was examining people’s wheels. All the riders who looked like they would have tools had skinny road tires whereas I was on a comfort bike with fatter 26” slicks. Those on fatter tires were rentals. So my plan was gravitating toward catching the bus rather than changing my tube.
THEN THE SHAME
But my thoughts were interrupted by bikers rushing by me nearly grazing my arm. And then came the shouts and gestures to walk on the pedestrian side of the bridge and get off the bike side.
The span is about 1.2 miles. We were probably half way across at that point. Another half mile to walk feeling like a pariah from the glares and aggression of spandexed cyclists.
Maybe had I been wearing lycra and wheeling my carbon fiber bike the cyclists rushing past judging my walk would have felt empathy and asked if they could help. Cyclists are generally very good about helping another cyclist in need.
Yes I was wearing a skirt. And yes I was riding a 35 pound city bike carrying my heavy U-lock and purse and coat in my pannier but that didn’t make me less of a cyclist.
BIKE BLACK BELTS
A friend afterward said maybe we should give bikers belts so you could tell that yes, I’ve ridden across a state (RAGBRAI), up mountains (Mt. Diablo), ridden a metric century (the Holstein 100), and did a three day bike tour on the Lost Coast on this bike. I’ve also done a Gran Fondo (63 miles) on a cheap Mexican-made folding bike in Mexico City and I’ve completed two back-to-back centuries, riding Seattle to Portland on a folding-bike (a Brompton—the best bike I’ve ridden so far!).
I’m an artist, filmmaker, and small business owner living in San Francisco, the most expensive city in the US right now, and although I dream of having a better bike (four, actually) I have been putting my time and money into my film work, much of which has had to do with bicycle advocacy.
I would LOVE a road bike. I dream of climbing Mt. Hamilton and would try it on my comfort bike but I’ve finally recognizing the limitations of my adventures on that bike. I still do 140 mile bike tours as well as day rides down Calaveras Road on my comfort bike, but some rides are no longer fun.
I dream of riding with the locusts. That is what I thought the road riders sounded like the first time I was riding solo to a Saturday morning meeting in Lagunitas. I didn’t know my way around Marin, the area north of San Francisco, and I didn’t yet recognize how to read the bike signs but would know I was going the right way when a pack of cyclists, many training for the AIDS Lifecycle ride, would come up behind me and whiz by. So I’d be listening for the sound of approaching locusts. It was comforting and energizing.
Here I’m in a different position. I felt like a bad biker for getting a flat.
I felt that I’d get more respect if I had a different bike.
And I felt ashamed to be a cyclist in San Francisco. Here I am bringing my friend from Mexico City and he’s seeing this type of behavior.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO SUPPORT CYCLING
Over the past several years I’ve been working on projects under my film Mind the Gap to help encourage new urban cyclists (Tips for Urban Cycling) and to bridge the gap between road users (Dialogues in Transit).
Here on the bridge, we had a great opportunity to encourage budding riders both from San Francisco and elsewhere.
My optimism was failing.
On the way up the bridge a woman briskly yelled “on your right” and passed me. She encountered a young girl trying to get up the steep entry to the bridge and rather than being empathetic, yelled at her to get out of the way.
As I passed, the mother was yelling “She’s young and she’s trying,” and the girl yelled “Why do you have to be so rude?”
Yes, why be rude?
My project, Dialogues in Transit, is meant to build empathy and understanding and better behavior on the streets. I am hoping to bridge understanding between cyclists, drivers, pedestrians, and transit riders.
But if within the cycling community we can’t even get along, I’m wondering if I’m battling windmills.
This walk has made me understand why people want to make rules. My feeling that day was that there was no bridge of understanding between those people expressing anger and people like me, who are not in a position to be strong riders, either because we are new or because we choose to bike differently. There seemed to be no room for dialogue.
First, I’d decrease the bridge speed limit to 10 mph. It is already at 15 mph but many riders exceed 20 mph.
INSPIRATION ZONE AHEAD
Next, I’d declare the bridge an inspiration zone. People riding across the bridge would have to do one of four things: Wear a fun costume and smile, give people virtual high fives when they ride by, say an encouraging word to a young cyclists, or create a cultural connection. They would be required to do something to better someone’s day.
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Nearing the other side of the bridge, I felt faint. Being such a short trip, I didn’t bring water and I was feeling dehydrated.
On the other side of the bridge, we were helped by the kindness of strangers. One gentleman offered tire levers and a patch. Another came to help with a working pump.
One of the men suggested that maybe I should have waited on the side of the bridge and that then the bikers would have offered help.
My “irresponsibility” for not bringing gear has also crossed my mind.
Finally on two wheels again, Luis and I rushed by other spandex clad cyclists. I was able to wave thank you to one of the men who had helped and left before I could say thank you in person.
Luis and I made it to Real Food Real Stories just in time to hear Christopher’s tales of adventure, community, and personal growth.
On the way home, the tire finally gave out midway between two bike shops.
Again, Luis and I were walking in the sun, this time talking about what a good day we had been having.
A woman on a road bike went by as we reached the top of a hill and said something about a flat. I thought she meant my tire but she was talking about the road. She was chiding me for not having the stamina to ride.
And I wished I were riding. That stretch is much longer when you are walking versus when you are biking. But it was a beautiful day and Luis had a sandwich and I had salad in my pannier and the Bay was up ahead.
When Luis was changing my tire in front of the bike shop we finally reached, a couple drove up in an SUV with two expensive road bikes on their rack and parked illegally in the red no parking zone. One cyclist went into the bike shop. The woman on the phone was telling her friend how “everything that could go wrong did today.” They both seemed unhappy.
After being run off the road twice by drivers who abruptly rode into the narrow shoulder on the turn off towards the bridge, we crossed over into the bridge parking lot and get ready to cross again, this time on bikes.
The bike is still my refuge and I’m happy riding. When you bike camp, you learn to expect the unexpected and roll with the punches.
Just after the entering the bike side of the bridge we both noticed a huge sign.
“Changing Tires Prohibited”